Gujarat CM dares Congress to name chief ministerial candidate

“Your votes will decide who will hold the keys to Gujarat. Don’t be careless and lose the keys.” Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s voice booms across the APMC (Agriculture Prices Marketing Committee) grounds in this little taluka town, a key railway junction, 65 km from Ahmedabad, as he warms to his theme: “Even when you go out of town for a few days, you leave your house keys with someone you trust.

With 10 days left for the first phase of elections to the Assembly, Mr. Modi — who has been in power for 11 years — is directing all his firepower at the Congress. “The Congress is salivating at the thought of getting its hands on the keys to the overflowing treasury of Gujarat.” Beware, he adds, it should not go into the hands of the Gandhi parivar.

The local BJP candidate from the Viramgam seat, Prachibhai Patel, has been MLA for two terms — and is facing some anti-incumbency of his own, local BJP workers acknowledge, before Mr. Modi arrives. The APMC grounds, when filled to capacity, can take about 9,000 people, a policeman on duty says, but on this very pleasant Monday afternoon, it’s not more than three-fourths full.

Conscious of this, Mr. Modi tries to deflect attention from Viramgam: “When you go to cast your vote, pause for a moment and think about the significance of this election. It’s not about the future of the candidate here, or of Viramgam, nor of Ahmedabad district,” he says and then his voice drops for effect, “It’s about the future of Gujarat. The State needs a strong government and a strong leader.”

Of course, Mr. Modi has not lost his ability to connect with the crowd: if the audience sits listlessly, barely responding to slogans shouted from the stage, when the Chief Minister – dressed all in white, with a saffron gamcha and the lotus, the party symbol, on his chest – starts to speak, the audience listens intently, hanging on to every word, breaking into a ripple of laughter from time to time.

The Chief Minister also has not lost the art of innuendo: as he asks mockingly why the Congress has not announced who is its chief ministerial candidate, he himself offers a name: “The Congress has a secret agenda: it is Ahmed bhai.” He is, of course referring to Ahmed Patel, Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s Political Secretary, who is from the State. Indeed, over the last few days, he has been repeatedly mentioning Mr. Patel’s name, but if he began by calling him “Ahmed Patel” a couple of days ago, he is now using the more familiar Ahmed bhai to, perhaps, link the Congress to the Muslim vote, in the hope it will provoke the Congress to hit back and help him communalise the election. So far, Congress leaders have been guarded in their speeches and statements, not indulging in any of the maut ka saudagar (merchants of death) flourishes of 2007.

He then plunges into the Congress ad campaign, which exhorts the people of the State to “disha badlo, dasha badlo” (change your direction; improve your condition) and says it is the Congress which needs to change its direction and improve its health.