Ahmedabad: Hitting the election tracks towards the fag end of the campaign in Gujarat, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today came out in full support of Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Addressing his first election meeting in Vadodara, Vajpayee asserted that there should be no dispute over religion. Though he avoided making any direct references to the communal riots or to Modi’s strident Hindutva rhetoric, he made it clear that it is time to end communal tension.

“The bitterness that we have seen during the campaign should end here. During election times, biter comments are common. But it serves no purpose,” held the Prime Minister.

Leadership issue

While he praised the Modi government, his endorsement did not go as far as Deputy Prime Minister Advani, who announced that Modi would take over the reign once again if the BJP won.

Vajpayee also appeared to reopen the leadership issue in Gujarat. “After the elections, the MLAs elected by you will choose their leader,” he said.

With various opinion polls showing a diminishing gap between BJP and Congress, BJP leaders are aware that a high voter turnout would work in their favour, and they are all going all out to ensure just that.

Godhra takes centerstage

But while a fortnight ago, the Prime Minister has said that he did not want Godhra to be made an election issue, even a ruling by the Election Commission has not deterred the BJP from running a “Godhra-centric” campaign.

At the Godhra railways station, the burnt out compartment of the Sabarmati Express is a silent spectator to the strident rhetoric.

The Election Commission pulled down BJP election hoardings of the burning Sabarmati Express. But now in the last stretch of the Gujarat campaign, the party is pushing ahead in full steam. The burning train has resurfaced – this time in cold print with an unapologetic BJP buying ad space in the state’s major newspapers.

The ads sell terrorism as the common link between Godhra, Akshardham and the attack on Parliament. The party video, which is even more direct in using visuals of the burning train, is being played out on prime time across local cable networks.

The BJP says the Election Commission cannot ban the ads.

Initially a defensive Congress has chosen not to directly respond to the BJP’s “Godhra-centric” campaign. But in the last few days the Congress’ ads and posters question the charge that the party is soft on terror.

One poster accuses the BJP of allowing terror to enter Gujarat and there is a promise of more such ads to come. “The BJP is trying to politicize terrorism as they have done with religion. They are fearful as they know the voters will see through the ploy,” said Congress General Secretary Kamal Nath.

While the Congress is using NGOs as propaganda weapons, the BJP has a more influential ally – the VHP.
At the VHP’s headquarters in Ahmedabad, T-shirts and posters are still being distributed to the organisation’s rank and file, especially at meetings in north and central Gujarat where the riots took place – areas which the VHP is focusing on.

Despite the Election Commission wielding the stick, on the ground in Gujarat it appears open season in a surcharged political atmosphere.

Keshubhai toes Modi’s line

Senior BJP leader Keshubhai Patel has been actively campaigning for the party in Gujarat despite losing the chief minister’s chair to Narendra Modi. Patel’s support is being seen as another victory for Modi in this crucial election.

In the initial days of the campaign, Patel avoided making any reference to Godhra. He has now shifted his stance and is echoing the party line, though not with the same emotional appeal as Modi has whipped up.

“We do not want to bring up the issue of Godhra but if they (opposition parties) raise it, we will have to reply,” said Patel.

Though still deeply unhappy over being unseated by Modi as Gujarat’s chief minister, Patel has been campaigning vigorously across the state.

“This is not a formality for me. This is my responsibility. After all, this is my party. I am doing it with all my heart,” maintained Patel.

With Keshubhai falling in line, it is one more hurdle that Narendra Modi has crossed in the run-up to the make-or-breaks election.