Counting of votes in Guj on Dec 23: Modi's fate hangs in balance

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{image-counting of votes_22122007.jpg}Ahmedabad, Dec 22: What does the future hold for him? Will Mr Narendra Modi emerge triumphant yet again or the political ambitions of the flamboyant Chief Minister and the 'poster-boy' of Gujarat politics suffer a body-blow? As political pundits try to find answers to these questions, counting of votes polled in the assembly elections in the state will be taken up tomorrow, amid tight security. Counting will be held simultaneously at 37 places in the state at 0800 hrs and results are expected to start pouring in well before noon.

Political parties wait with bated breath for the outcome of the fiercely fought elections to the 182-member assembly as it could have a bearing on the national political scene, what with the Left parties threatening to withdraw support to the UPA Government on the Indo-US nuclear deal, triggering speculation about the possibility of an early Lok Sabha poll.

It was virtually a straight contest between the BJP and the Congress in the state, which went to the polls in two phases. In the first phase, polling was held in 87 constituencies on December 11 while 95 contituencies went to the polls on December 16. Nearly 60 per cent of the voters exercised their franchise in the first phase and about 65 per cent balloting was registered in the second phase.

However, no state election in the past has attracted as much nation-wide attention as the poll to the Gujarat Assembly, thanks to the larger-than-life image Mr Modi has acquired. Both the BJP and the Congress pulled out all the stops during the poll campaign.

Carrying the entire burden of campaigning for the BJP on his shoulders, the Chief Minister criss-crossed the state to garner support for the saffron party. For the Congress party, in the absence of any tall Gujarati leader to take on Mr Modi, the star campaigners were Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and AICC General Secretary Rahul Gandhi.

Mr Modi began his campaign by seeking votes on the plank of development. However, he changed gears and returned to his favourite 'Hindutva' card when Ms Gandhi, in one of her speeches, said those running the state were ''the merchants of fear and death.'' As if he was looking for an opportunity to corner Ms Gandhi and return to the 'Hindutva' mode, Mr Modi tried to consolidate the Hindu vote behind him by claiming that the Congress President had hurt the pride of Gujaratis by describing his government as ''maut ke saudagar'. He also justified the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh in an alleged fake encounter with police for which he was slapped notices by the Election Commission and the Supreme Court.

Thus, the focus during campaigning shifted from developmental issues to mud-slinging between the Congress leadership and Mr Modi on the issue of communalism.

However, the rebellion by former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel and the resignation of another sulking former CM Suresh Mehta from the BJP did put a spanner in the works of Mr Modi to project a united face of the saffron party to the electorate. Adding to his woes were 50-odd BJP rebel candidates in some of the strongholds of the party. It is to be seen how much damage the BJP rebels have caused to Mr Modi, who is said to have earned the wrath of the influential Patel and Koli communities.

The Chief Minister has put everything at stake as a victory in the elections will make him an undisputed 'messiah' of the BJP while a defeat at the hands of a resurgent Congress could spell disaster for his turbulent political career.

In the first round of polling 87 Assembly seats, spread across Saurashtra, Kutch and South Gujarat, went to the polls on December 11, involving a 17.9 million-strong electorate.

While the BJP contested all the 87 seats in the first phase, the Congress fielded 82 candidates, leaving the remaining five to its allies.

Polling for the remaining 95 constituencies of Central and North Gujarat, worst affected by the 2002 post-Godhra communal riots, was held on December 16.

Exit polls by various television news channels have projected a third-time victory for the BJP, though they are unanimous in concluding that the saffron party's strength will go down considerably in the state assembly.


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