AHMEDABAD/NEW DELHI: The election campaign, now in its final leg in Gujarat, has become tense and intense.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the trump card for the Bharatiya Janata Party and is being used to the hilt, addressing 35 rallies in just a fortnight from now. Chai ke saath meetings will intersperse jan sabhas as he starts this phase of the campaign from Bhuj, with 33 per cent Muslims, where the BJP has successfully polarised polls in the past. Local Opposition leaders openly state that they expect the ruling party to “communalise” the elections but also insist that this will not work as in the past.

The credit for this is being given directly to the three young leaders Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor (now with the Congress) who have been campaigning for a long while for unity, and in the process been warning against the BJP efforts to move the debate away from development to communalism.

The three who have been constantly in the field over the past months and years, do not hesitate to speak out against the BJP on the issues of terrorism and divisiveness, that feed into the larger communal campaign. Asked if the release of terrorist Hafiz Saeed in Pakistan will become a strong plank in these elections as and when raised by the BJP, a supporter of Hardik Patel was categorical, “well we expect them to raise this but they should also answer, as Hardik has been asking them to, as to who released Hafiz Saeed in the first place?” Saeed who was in Indian jails was handed over to the Taliban in return for Indian hostages by the Vajpayee government. Then Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh had personally effected the exchange.

Jignesh Mevani has also been repeatedly puncturing the BJPs communal card and as a Muslim youth leader who has been accompanying him said, “he is saying it even before we can sense it.” After some unexploded bombs were recovered in Ahmedabad Mevani immediately said, that this was to be expected from the BJP. As the youth leader said, “Jignesh and others are not allowing this campaign to grow, and have been repeatedly warning the people that the BJP will resort to communalism against development.”

Locals in Ahmedabad insist that so far the communal campaign has not worked. And will not work in the manner it has in the past, as there was no opposition then as compared to considerable opposition now. The Congress organisation has also revived, and over the past three months in particular the party is visible, more so than it has been since 2002 in the state. Congress leaders in Gujarat insist that there are at least four factors that make these polls different from what has gone before.

One, sections of three castes --Dalits, Patidars and backwards---have come out of the BJP influence because of the efforts of Mevani, Hardik Patel and Thakor;

Two, the impact of GST and demonetisation that still remains on the ground despite the sops announced by the central government;

Three, PM Narendra Modi’s popularity that had peaked in 2014 has waned somewhat;

Four, the BJP’s second rung of the leadership is neither strong nor popular.

This is the first election also where there are caste leaders who have already made a difference in their respective communities. And the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi has also emerged from the shadows to build a strong, and effective campaign using many of PM Modi’s own cards, such as a strong presence on the social media. Communalism, Congress optimists add, has also peaked and as a state leader told The Citizen earlier, “like Babri masjid that lost its influence after it was demolished, here too the issue of minority appeasement now no longer exists.”

Rahul Gandhi’s visits to the temples that the BJP is trying to ridicule has also cut ice with sections of the voters. Earlier the Congress had not been able to organise this, but the whirlwind visits to various temples in Gujarat seems to have worked with the voters. Now the Congress vice president has also stepped in to accept a giant tricolour woven by Dalits. He has started this current phase of his campaign from Kirti Mandir in Porbandar, the birthplace of Gandhi. Significantly, the 125x83 feet national flag was to have been presented to Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani who did not receive it saying there was no space for it. The Dalits are now giving it to Rahul Gandhi, in what is a major move, on the eve of polling.