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Modi's Home State Votes in Local Polls Projected as Easy Win for BJP

In India's western state of Gujarat, voters began choosing a new state government on Thursday in an election where Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party is expected to cruise to an easy victory.

Political analysts say that while there is disenchantment with the BJP in a state that it has ruled for 27 years, the party is on course to win an unprecedented seventh term, mainly due to the popularity of the Indian leader.

Gujarat is Modi's home state, which he headed for about 13 years as chief minister before he became the country's prime minister in 2014, and the BJP is depending on his charisma to pull in votes. In recent weeks, Modi has addressed dozens of rallies in the state.

"Overall, the Modi magic remains. A lot of people want change and those who are voting for the BJP are only doing it because of those three words: Narendra Damodardas Modi," Neerja Chowdhury, an independent political analyst said. "If the party is in the reckoning, it is only because of him."

Observers say there is dissatisfaction with the track record of the government, particularly among poorer groups. Although Gujarat is a bustling hub of commerce and one of India's most prosperous states, it has also witnessed growing economic distress and joblessness in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Inflation and high fuel prices are hurting poor households.

However, the lack of strong opposition is helping the BJP in its bastion. Two opinion polls conducted in the run-up to the polls have projected that the party will win a larger share of seats than it holds in the present state assembly.

The challengers are the main opposition Congress party and a regional party that has entered the electoral fray in Gujarat for the first time, hoping to establish a national footprint. Led by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Aadmi Party, that rules Delhi and Punjab in the north, has campaigned extensively in the state.

The party has been wooing voters from lower socioeconomic backgrounds such as roadside vendors, small traders and small-scale industrial units, with pledges of subsidized power, and promises to improve schools and medical facilities on the model that it is following in Delhi.

"The wild card in this election is the Aam Aadmi Party. Because it is starting on a clean slate, it remains to be seen how well it does. But I found first-time voters, and lower classes drawn to it," Chowdhury, who visited the state recently, said. "And it is cutting into the BJP vote, which has made them a bit nervous of late."

A strong showing for the party, which grew out of a nationwide anti-corruption movement in 2012, will indicate whether its appeal has widened.

The BJP's appeal to voters has focused on development and a strong nationalist appeal. It has pledged to set up an "anti-radicalization cell" to identify and eliminate potential terror threats if it comes to power.

The elections are being held in two stages with another round of polling due on Monday.

The BJP has already won convincing victories in four out of six states where polls were held this year including Uttar Pradesh which is India's largest and electorally most significant state. The results for Gujarat and the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, which cast ballots last month, will be announced on December 8.

If the BJP can secure a victory in Gujarat, it will add to the party's momentum ahead of national elections. "If they win convincingly, it sets Modi up very much on the road to 2024," said Chowdhury, adding that this "will reaffirm his popularity.