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Gujarat election is a test of Modi's re-election chances

The Indian prime minister bets on building a wider base in his home state

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, attends a rally in Mehsana, Gujarat, on Dec. 9. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

AHMEDABAD, India Polls are open in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat for a legislative race that could shape the leader's own re-election strategy for 2019. The test: Can Modi build a broader, more inclusive support base and score a decisive victory?

The western state's favorite son has been stumping hard for his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to the legislative election -- though his own reputation as Gujarat's former chief minister is often the focus. "Here is a prime minister who knows 200 people in Dharampur by name," he told a crowd in that town of 20,000 on Dec. 4.

Despite the hourlong flight from New Delhi, Modi has visited Gujarat several times recently, seemingly less to support BJP candidates than to chase his own ambitions. India's next general election, in April and May of 2019, is not far off, and the prime minister is eager to lock down a second term.

The Gujarat race holds real implications for Modi and the BJP's national fortunes down the line. Gujarat is one of India's larger states, electing 26 of the 545 members of the country's lower house. Voters cast their state-level ballots on Dec. 9 and Dec. 14, and the vote counting is scheduled for Dec. 18. The outcome will set the mood for elections in other large states -- Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan -- next year.

State legislatures are also responsible for choosing 233 of the 245 members of India's upper house. The composition of these bodies determines in part how many representatives each party has on the national stage. The BJP currently controls 18 of India's 31 states and special territories.

REACHING OUT In some cases, making those gains means reaching out to opposition figures willing to switch teams. Such was the case with Balvantsinh Rajput, a 35-year veteran of the top opposition Indian National Congress party. The onetime vice president of Congress' Gujarat wing had a surprising message for residents of his home village of Charup during a November visit: "We have been supporting Congress so far; similarly, from today, we will support BJP."

Charup -- around 140km north of Gujarat's largest city, Ahmedabad -- is home to members of the Rajput caste, said to be the descendants of warriors. Its roughly 3,000 residents are known for the loyalty they show to their fellow villagers. And so when Rajput made his proclamation, accompanied by BJP veteran and former opponent Jay Narayan Vyas, more than 1,000 spectators responded in unison, "Yes, we will." Roughly 20 Congress legislators in Gujarat have joined the BJP over the past several months, Vyas said.

Voters listen to Modi's speech in Mehsana on Dec. 9. (Photo by Shinya Sawai)

Gujarat's voters thrice handed the BJP 60% or more of state legislature seats during Modi's stint as chief minister from 2001 to 2014. But with the leader now prime minister, this race tests just how strong the party's hold is without such a well-loved, charismatic figure in charge on the state level. The BJP holds 121 of the legislature's 182 seats going into the race, and there are few signs that will change significantly. If this "One India" strategy is a success in Gujarat, Modi intends to take it nationwide in 2019 to secure a victory of his own.

Much of the BJP's outreach has been to India's Muslims, who account for 14% of the national population and have traditionally eschewed the party for its Hindu nationalist roots. In Gujarat, 10% of voters are Muslim, according to a local publication, and three in four support Congress, making them the only demographic in the state to prefer that party to the BJP. But that could be changing. Over the "last several years, there has been a trend of Muslims shifting their support from Congress to BJP" because of Modi's popularity, said Hiren Rajyaguru, a senior journalist for local television network Sandesh News.

The prime minister is taking on the monumental task of reuniting a society that remains fragmented even after seven decades of independence from British rule. The effort to bridge those divisions has already started on the economic front. The abolition of high-value bank notes last year aimed to integrate the nation's underground and formal economies. The goods and services tax introduced this year replaces wildly disparate indirect state levies.

However, some commercial and industrial figures are not happy with the reforms. "Traders in Gujarat have been depending on cash transactions for the last 30 or 50 years, and many of them have never paid income tax," said an Indian banker. "For them, the two unpopular policies of Modi must have hit seriously." If such disaffection is reflected at the ballot box, Modi could face a steeper path to realizing his One India dream.

Luckily for Modi, he still has devoted backers. "Industry in Gujarat will not let the BJP and Modi go, as he is a Gujarati prime minister after so many years," said a senior government official. "There is benefit for industry to have a Gujarati PM."

Gujarat is home to the world's largest oil refinery, operated by Reliance Industries. The factory where Tata Motors manufactures the Nano is also in the state.

On the ground, there are signs that Modi's policies really are beginning to break down barriers between castes and sects.

Kiran Waniya, a 32-year-old lubricant salesman in Ahmedabad, often opens his lunch box with rival salesmen at Gandhi Ashram, one of Mahatma Gandhi's former residences in the city center. Waniya is a Dalit, who resides at the bottom of the Hindu caste system.

"If I follow the traditional caste rules, I can't eat at his home," he said, pointing to a friend who belongs to the Patidar caste. "Caste-wise, Dalits are seen as Congress supporters, but I will vote for BJP because I am very happy with [its] infrastructure development."

Nationwide, Modi's popularity has recovered from the controversial policies and reached new heights, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Nov. 15. The prime minister won the support of 90% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29. Those between 30 and 49 showered Modi with 89% approval. He has also attracted record support among women this year, indicating that female and young voters could power his One India campaign.

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi is set to take over as head of Congress from his mother, Sonia Gandhi. During the so-called Nehru dynasty, which dominated much of post-independence Indian politics, several members of the Gandhi family have served as Congress leaders. But the approval rating for Rahul Gandhi falls short of 60%, just like Sonia Gandhi.

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