NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced his most crucial electoral test since he took office in 2014 as voters lined up Saturday to choose a local government in his home state of Gujarat.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party is fighting a tough battle to retain control in the western state that Modi governed for nearly 13 years before emerging on the national stage.
Political analysts say victory for the BJP in Gujarat is critical if Modi is to retain the image of a leader who can deliver on development and jobs – a reputation that was honed in this state as its robust economic growth surpassed the national average.
Political analyst Satish Misra at the Observer Research Foundation says that the BJP is hoping that “Modi’s charisma and his sway over people of Gujarat” would deliver victory.
But as voters waited to cast ballots in the first phase of the two-stage election, there was nervousness in the party’s ranks. Polls show that the party’s lead has shrunk as an economic slowdown has triggered growing discontent and dented the Prime Minister’s image.
In the past year, both big and small businesses have been hurt by Modi’s radical move to ban most hard currency in a bid to stamp out corruption, and the introduction of a sweeping tax reform. The impact has been worst in states like Gujarat -- a bustling hub of trade and business.
There is anger in other quarters also – the rural economy has failed to pick up, farmers say they are hurt by low prices for crops, and job growth has been disappointing.
But most worrying for the BJP is the disaffection among some castes that have now aligned with the opposition Congress Party – caste usually is a strong factor in Indian elections. The BJP could be hurt most by the loss of support from the influential Patels or the Patidar caste, that has rallied under a young leader, Hardik Patel, and is demanding better access to jobs and education through the quota system.
Fears of faring badly on Modi’s home turf have prompted the BJP to pull out all stops to rally voters in the past month.
“In the last 15-20 days the Prime Minister had addressed over three dozen rallies. He has asked his ministerial colleagues to camp in Gujarat and campaign for the party. All this shows that the BJP is apprehending a very, very close battle,” says Misra.
On Saturday Modi tweeted “Urging all those voting today to turnout in record numbers and vote. I particularly call upon youngsters to exercise their franchise.”
Three polls have forecast a victory for Modi’s ruling BJP but with a greatly reduced majority in the 182-member assembly. But poll forecasts in India having frequently been off the mark.
For Modi, a victory is important to silence growing criticism that his promises of development and creating jobs for India’s young population are flagging.
The Gujarat elections will also be a litmus test for opposition leader Rahul Gandhi who is set to take over as president of the main opposition Congress Party next week. He has tried to shake off the image of a “reluctant politician” as he campaigned extensively in Gujarat.
An improved showing in the state could give new energy to the Congress Party as it prepares for 2019 general elections – the party hit an all-time low in 2014.
“The BJP has been thriving on the non-existence of the Congress. Now a leadership challenging Modi is there on the horizon,” says Misra.