Gujarat elections: Congress jolted after Mani Shankar Aiyar’s gaffe on PM Modi

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New Delhi/Rajkot: The Congress suffered an unexpected jolt on the eve of the first phase of Gujarat elections after senior leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s political gaffe.

“He (Narendra Modi) is neech kism ka aadmi (a vile man) who has no sabhyata (civility),” Aiyar said, while attacking Modi for accusing the Congress of seeking votes in the name of B.R. Ambedkar, according to a report by Press Trust of India.

Seizing on the comment, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a public rally on the last day of campaigning for the first phase, said, “People will answer them (Congress) through the ballot box.”

Later, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah criticized the Congress.

After initially admonishing Aiyar publicly and directing him to apologize, the Congress eventually suspended the former petroleum minister from the primary membership of the party. Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala posted on Twitter about Aiyar’s suspension and of the fact that a show-cause notice has been issued.

Through this inclement step, the Congress has tacitly admitted that Aiyar’s remarks against the prime minister would politically damage them at the Gujarat elections.

Gujarat is a high-stakes election for the BJP as well as the Congress. For the former it is Modi’s home state and a win is critical, just as for the Congress a win is key to resurrecting its sagging morale after a string of electoral defeats in the last three years and to reclaim power in a state in which it has been out of power for over two decades.

Coincidentally, the controversy erupted just as the first phase of campaigning for constituencies in Saurashtra and South Gujarat wound down. Polling for 89 of the 182 seats is scheduled on 9 December in districts such as Rajkot, Junagadh, Amreli, Morbi, Kutch and Surendranagar. A total of 977 candidates, including 57 women, are in the fray.

In the first phase of campaigning, Modi showcased the achievements of the state and central governments, coupled with sharp attacks against the Congress, particularly the Gandhi family. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who led the campaign for his party, sought to question the development claims in rallies and through a campaign around the Gujarati slogan “vikaas gaando thayo chhe”, which loosely translates to “development gone crazy”.

Voters in districts like Morbi, Amreli, Junagadh and Rajkot believe that farm distress and the transition to the goods and services tax (GST) regime could be key factors in this election.

“Farmers are in a lot of distress. There is a problem with our insurance scheme; not much has been done to cushion our losses and we are not getting a good price for either groundnut or cotton. Everyone gets affected by agriculture and this is the main issue of this election,” said Kaaru Jaisingh Patel, a farmer from Rajkot district.

While the BJP is projecting the work of its state and Union governments to win a record fifth consecutive term, the Congress is looking to force a realignment in the state’s politics by stitching together a new social coalition.

“Numerically this phase is more important. Anti-incumbency is felt more in Saurashtra because there are a lot of traders here, it was the hotbed of the Patel agitation and there is a growing perception that there are not enough jobs, forcing people to migrate to other parts of the state. It is also significant because the BJP in a way rose from Saurashtra,” said Priyavadan Patel, a retired professor of political science at Vadodara’s M.S. University.

“South Gujarat is significant because Surat was one of the few places in the country where visible protest against GST by traders happened,” he added

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