The all-important battle for the ongoing Gujarat Assembly elections is being fought in Saurashtra. The region goes to polls in the first phase on December 1, along with the region of South Gujarat.

One can gauge the political importance of Saurashtra that sends 48 legislators to the assembly of 182 members from the fact that six of the total 17 Chief Ministers of the state have represented constituencies of this region. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first elected to the state Assembly in 2001 from Rajkot (West) seat that was vacated for him by the former finance minister Vajubhai Vala.

Saurashtra plays an important role in deciding who forms the government in the state. In 2017 it was the Congress that had won 29 of the total seats leaving the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) trailing at 19.

Understanding the need to regain its lost ground the BJP adopted a multipronged strategy that involved causing defections of at least five strong sitting MLAs in the run up the current polls and fielding at least three of them on its tickets. Political analysts say another strategic move was to field close confidantes of the powerful Leuva Patel leader Naresh Patel on a couple of seats. There was talk of Naresh Patel joining hands with the Congress ahead of the polls but the entire process was effectively scuttled.

"The BJP is not leaving anything to chance and is also nervous at the lack of turnout at the public rallies of its leaders including Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. In my life this is for the first time that I have seen a prime minister coming twice to Rajkot and Jamnagar each to address public rallies," disclosed veteran political analyst Kaushik Mehta who is based in Rajkot.

People on the ground say that a recent rally of Bhupendra Patel in Kodinar had seen a thin attendance of just 172 people including journalists and security personnel. There were viral videos of students being made to attend a rally of Amit Shah.

But at the same time it is being pointed that people are no more interested in attending public rallies and at most of them the crowds are managed.

An interesting phenomenon is the high turnout at Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rallies, particularly in Khambaliya. The party's chief ministerial candidate Isudan Gadhvi is pitted against the Congress heavyweight Vikram Madam and BJP's Mulu Ayar Bera, from this area.

Observers say that even the AAP rallies for which the venues allowed were outside the town limits have seen good crowds. But at the same time it is being pointed out that people go to these events because of the novelty factor.

The AAP is now being given a chance in terms of winning the seats but everyone is keeping an eye on how many votes the party is able to gather in these elections across Gujarat. Even the opponents of the party acknowledge that if the rookie party is able to secure around seven to ten per cent of the votes it will damage the Congress prospects but if this figure goes above 10 per cent then it will be a major concern for the BJP.

The party is yet to have an established organisational set up on the ground. It also remains to be seen whether the party workers are able to bring voters to the booth on the day of the polls.

Like in rest of Gujarat, these elections are turning out to be a fight devoid of issues. What perplexes an outsider is the fact that even an issue like the recent Morbi bridge collapse that saw the death of 141 people is not a political issue. "Not only the candidates but even the social leaders are not raking it up in the manner in which it should have," said Mehta.

The explanation that one gets for this from the common people is that they do not want any of the industries in Morbi facing an issue since these industries are the main source of local employment.

"It is no longer an issue because the entire BJP government including the top leadership from Rajkot, chief minister Bhupendra Patel and state's home minister Harsh Sanghavi were on the spot within three hours. The place was visited by Modi the next day. Then the party gave the ticket to Kantilal Amrutiya whose video of jumping into the Macchu river to save the victims had gone viral," said a grassroot BJP leader in Rajkot.

However, many observers feel that the incident will have a bearing on the voting pattern in at least the three constituencies of Morbi, Padadhari and Tankara that are in close proximity to ground zero of the incident.

The manner in which the former CM Vijay Rupani and his entire cabinet were replaced last year continues to be a matter of concern for the BJP, particularly on his home turf of Rajkot. "Even we are still unable to understand why Rupani was removed. But it is a time where Modi is all in all in the party and foot soldiers like us are just supposed to work for the party symbol," pointed a young BJP leader at one of the dinner parties that the saffron outfit has been organising across the residential localities of Rajkot.

The BJP leaders have, however, set an example for the others to emulate as they have been marking the voters one on one and approaching them to support the party. Their campaign has been further boosted by the seers of religious sects.

Even this region has not been left out by the campaign that has communal undertones. The BJP leaders across the board have been playing up the demolition of 'illegal' structures in Muslim dominated localities of Bet Dwarka and Porbandar recently. Sources disclosed that bulldozers were parked at the sites where Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath addressed rallies.

The Congress too has high stakes in the region and its leaders are working hard in the rural heartland of Saurashtra to retain the lead the party had established in the last elections.

Sources disclosed that the party has effectively carried out a quiet low profile campaign in the villages that have been described as 'khatla baithaks' (meetings on cots). "The ticket distribution has also been very good by the Congress this time," said an observer.

But at the same time it is being pointed out that the Congress has failed to list its achievements when it was in power before the electorate. For example, it is being said that it was the Congress leadership both at the state and the centre that had conceived and started the execution of the Narmada project for which Modi has been taking credit.

Gujarat's Poll Campaign Moves on Familiar Track

The poll campaign in Gujarat is moving on its expected trajectory with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) resorting once again to its tried and tested tactics of raking up emotive issues. The other two players, BJP's traditional rival the Congress and the rookie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are trying to wean away the public towards issues that concern their survival. These two parties are making fervent appeals to the people to give them a chance and put the brakes on the 27-year-old rule of the saffron party.

However, the common man on the streets of Ahmedabad stands disenchanted. The voters want the new government to check the spiralling prices, and let him or her earn their living in peace.

On the streets of Ahmedabad there is hardly any enthusiasm for the polls. But this has been the case on several previous occasions as well. It is only after some persuasion that people talk politics in resigned tones.

"I don't give a damn who wins or loses. I just want essentials to be within the reach of my pocket. My home in Vasna was burnt in 2002 riots and till today my family has been struggling to make ends meet. There has been no let up in the hate being peddled. We just want a peaceful existence so that we can manage our families without fear of any kind," said Hasnain Sheikh, an auto rickshaw driver from Makarba area of the city.

People are somehow resigned also to the fact that BJP, at least in public perception, has an edge. "I know that people suffered a lot during the second wave of Covid-19. Then there have been instances like the Morbi bridge disaster. The government made things more difficult by imposing goods and services tax (GST) even on edibles and stationery. Yet people will still vote for the BJP. As a Congress supporter I fail to understand why this happens," asked Ishwar Sinh, a resident of Ghatlodia in an interaction with this reporter.

Coming to the poll campaign tactics, the ruling BJP's poll assault is being led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and union home minister Amit Shah since Gujarat happens to be their home turf. People who understand the politics in the state are clear that this is a high-stakes battle, in context of the 2024 Parliamentary polls.

"A substantial increase in the BJP's tally would translate into Modi and Shah's stronghold continuing in the party towards 2024. If the results are otherwise and even though the party forms the government in Gujarat with lesser seats, there are chances of voices of discontent rising within the saffron fold. This looked an improbability till sometime back even in Gujarat but this time there has been vocal discontent over ticket distribution," said an Ahmedabad based political observer.

The BJP has started using its battery of central leaders to raise the pitch on emotive issues. So you have BJP leaders talking about Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's bearded look during the Bharat Jodo Yatra and comparing him to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussain, a remark that obviously has communal undertones.

Modi on his part has started pulling out Gujarat centric emotive issues out of his hat. Proving his reputation of being an excellent communicator, he has got the people chanting with him, "I made this Gujarat" thereby generating a sense of belonging and pride among his audience.

"This sense of pride, called 'Asmita' in Gujarati, however, automatically transforms into hatred for others who have thrown their hat in the electoral ring. He then uses this Asmita sentiment to attack his opponents accusing them of trying to destabilise and destroy Gujarat," pointed an observer.

The rest is done by foot soldiers particularly in the context of AAP as they try to paint it as a party that has come from Delhi. For the Congress, Modi is exploiting the Narmada Dam issue. After a photograph of Rahul Gandhi walking with Narmada Bachao Andolan activist Medha Patkar got circulated, Modi lost no time while addressing a rally in parched Saurashtra. He accused Rahul Gandhi of ganging up with the one who had blocked the Narmada project. Over the years, anti-dam activists have been painted as 'enemies' of Gujarat.

On Wednesday, Modi described the 'Congress model' as something that means casteism, division and vote bank politics that has 'ruined' Gujarat and the whole country. He said the BJP never favoured the policy of 'favouritism and discrimination' which is proved by the faith of youth in the party.

"They (Congress) always wanted to keep people poor so they remain dependent on the government," Modi said while addressing a rally in Mehsana in north Gujarat. He said the youth is unaware of the problems people faced in the past on account of water and power shortage.

"Droughts were also common in those days. We (BJP) had put Gujarat on the path of prosperity amid natural calamities and using limited resources. In the past, water and electricity used to be the major issues during polls. Today, the opposition can't speak on these issues because such issues are resolved by us," he claimed.

Addressing another rally in tribal dominated Dahod, Modi questioned why the Congress did not support Droupadi Murmu in the presidential election if it was so concerned about tribals. This was his response to Rahul's rally in tribal-dominated Mahuva village in Surat on Monday where he had accused the BJP of snatching away the rights of tribals.

"Why did Congress never think of making an Adivasi (tribal) our President? It was the BJP which made a tribal person, that too a woman, our country's President for the first time and sent a message to the world," Modi said.

Meanwhile, the Congress is downplaying the Medha Patkar barbs calling it a non-issue. Party leader Manish Tewari compared those drawing parallels between Rahul and Saddam with petty trolls.

"The BJP leaders have done a PhD in diverting attention of the people from real issues. Why don't you talk about development? Why don't you tell the people what you did in the last 27 years in Gujarat and eight years in the country? There is no reaction from the BJP on real issues," he said while responding to a query by The Citizen.

He was particularly aggressive on the recent Morbi bridge collapse in which 141 people died saying, "Can you imagine what would have happened if the tragedy had taken place elsewhere? But here there has been no resignation by anyone, no responsibility fixed. It is the ticket seller or a mechanic who have been arrested while there has been no action against real culprits. Why has no big fish been arrested? It is their arrogance as they think they can do whatever atrocity with the people thinking we will come back to power. We appeal to the people to demolish this arrogance."

Meanwhile it is AAP that continues to confuse observers as it moves on with its people outreach through road shows. Wednesday saw Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann participating in the road shows in tribal dominated Nizar, Vyara, Mandvi and Jhagadia.

"The people of Gujarat are fed up with the government that has been in power for 27 years. The government is a mill of corruption, the mill of unemployment, the mill of bad education, the mill of bad healthcare, and now the people of Gujarat will uproot this mill. We cleaned the mud in Delhi and in Punjab with a broom, because of which the lotus could not grow," he said.

Party's Rajya Sabha MP Raghav Chadha also participated in the roadshows at Modasa and Idar. "This time a storm of change is sweeping across Gujarat. Every person you talk to, there is only one word on their tongues and that is 'change'," he said.

He further said, "There are two models in this country, one in which a package of Rs 30,000 crore is given by the BJP, but only to industrialists and big contractors. And another, where Arvind Kejriwal will give a package of Rs 30,000 a month, which will be given to every family and common man of Gujarat. Every family of Gujarat will save Rs 30,000 per month (as per guarantees promised by AAP). BJP people say that Kejriwal is distributing Revdi.

"I want to tell the BJP people that, your Gujarat Chief Minister gets 5,000 units of electricity free, every minister gets all train travel free, every MP gets all medicine free of cost, but if Kejriwal wants to provide these facilities to every family in Gujarat, why does it bother BJP?"