2017 could be the Congress’ best shot at supplanting BJP in Gujarat

| | Updated on: Jan 27, 2018

Not in many years has an Assembly election in Gujarat promised a contest as close as it does this year. In 2017, the Congress, out of power for 22 long years, may well have its best shot at supplanting the BJP from power.

A five-point swing in the favour of the Congress could help the party catch up with the BJP, and perhaps even pull ahead of the State’s ruling party. Victory in Gujarat — where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was thrice elected Chief Minister, and where the BJP has defeated anti-incumbency for 19 years — could electrify the Grand Old Party into action in the upcoming battles in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. And, of course, in its journey to reclaim New Delhi in 2019. If, however, there is no swing, the BJP will be back in the saddle for a fifth consecutive term.

But the script is still in the realm of possibility, even if its vocabulary is replete with ‘ifs’. The BJP has consistently secured 40-49 per cent of the vote in Gujarat since 1995, the year it first came to power. A combination of caste calculations, Hindutva, and Narendra Modi’s charisma has kept it in power for the past 19 years (although it won in 1995, the State unit of the BJP split soon after, with Shankersinh Vaghela becoming CM with Congress support for a short while; fresh polls were held in 1998).

The Congress’ vote share, too, has been consistent: it clocked a high of 39.28 per cent in 2002, in the elections that were held about ten months after the communal riots. In 2012, it secured 38.93 per cent. Its base has held steady, and this year’s poll is perhaps the party’s best chance at breaking the BJP’s hold over Gujarat.

Is the Congress coming?

A pre-election survey conducted by CSDS-Lok Niti in October found the BJP with only a six-percentage-point lead over the Congress, down from over 30 points in August. The Congress party’s slogans — ‘ Congress aave che ’ (the Congress is coming) and ‘ Vikas gando thayo che ’ (development gone crazy) — seem to have resonated with voters.

But the Congress is not merely banking on spin; there is discontent on the ground, and it is real.

Gujarat’s famed business community — particularly those who run small and medium businesses — took a battering in last year’s demonetisation exercise, and was harrowed by the GST’s implementation earlier this year. Since then, the Centre has scrambled to salvage matters by easing the GST compliance burden and rationalising tax rates — even the levy on the humble khakhra is down to 5 per cent, from the earlier 12. While some sections have stopped shaking their fists, anger among the traders, who have been traditional supporters of the BJP, is simmering. The Congress, sensing an opportunity, is bending over backwards to connect with the traders, and is holding out the promise of an 18 per cent cap on GST rates.

In fact, Gujaratis’ satisfaction levels with the Centre’s performance has come down to 1 in 2 voters, from 3 in 4 just over six months ago, according to a CSDS poll.

And contrary to popular perception, the BJP may not really be invincible in Gujarat. Even at the height of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s popularity, after the Kargil war, the Congress polled 45.44 per cent of the votes in the parliamentary election, although it managed to win only 6 of the 26 seats.

In 2004, however, the BJP’s margin fell to 14-12, and in 2009, it was 15-11, albeit still in the party’s favour. The prospect of Modi becoming PM saw the saffron party grab all 26 seats in 2014, but the Congress still held on to 33 per cent of the vote.

Caste in stone

While caste equations have always had a role to play in Gujarat’s elections, the slogans of ‘Hindutva’ and ‘development’ had replaced them on headlines, at least in elections since 1990. However, agitations by the prosperous Patels and the OBCs after Narendra Modi left Gandhinagar for New Delhi, have crystallised the caste silos for all to see.

Hardik Patel, who has been leading the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti’s agitation for reservation in jobs and education since 2015, has struck a deal with the Congress. OBC leader Alpesh Thakore, who had been spearheading the OSS — the grouping claimed to espouse the demands of the OBCs, the SCs and STs — has joined the Congress. The party has also made tangible overtures to Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who has, chosen to stand as an independent candidate with the party’s backing.

While the OBCs have been BJP supporters, the Dalits, or ‘Harijans’, have always voted for the Congress, like their Kshatriya, Adivasi and Muslim cousins. These groups make up the KHAM formulation, which was propounded by Congress Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki in 1985, and won the party those elections, and seats in the State ever since. While much of the Congress’ vote may be intact, there has been discontent among the Adivasis. Twenty-eight of the State’s 182 seats are reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, making the constituency crucial in any government formation. The Congress has finalised a seat-sharing agreement with former JD(U) MLA and tribal leader Chhotu Vasava, who has floated the Bharatiya Tribal Party.

The BJP’s explicit support for cow protection, and its implicit backing of vigilantism of the kind seen in Una last year, when Dalit youth were flogged, have given the Dalits more reason to stay away from the ruling party.

While it remains to be seen if the Patidars, who have been the BJP’s faithful, remain loyal to the party or vote for the Congress, the ruling party has been shaken by their revolt, and may lose a portion of the Patel vote. A political observer influential in power circles during Narendra Modi’s days as chief minister told BusinessLine that the Patels will not vote en bloc, given the several divisions and sub-groups that exist within the community.

But there is one other thing that could go wrong for the BJP. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, a lieutenant of BJP chief Amit Shah, is no crowd-puller, and cannot hope to match the charisma of a Narendra Modi or a Keshubhai Patel. Since Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, the State has had two Chief Ministers — Anandiben Patel and Rupani — but neither has been strong enough to fend off the revolt of the Patels.

What could help the BJP

Then again, the BJP may lose a little ground but still emerge triumphant, as happened in 2012. In that election, the BJP was hurt by Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP), which polled 3.63 per cent of the vote, and cost the ruling party at least 11 of the 16 seats where the GPP had an impact. But not only did the BJP manage to retain power then, it also captured 47.85 per cent of the popular vote, with many Gujaratis rooting for their Chief Minister to be made the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The Congress notched up a creditable 38.93 per cent, and won 61 seats. This time around the GPP is not a factor, having merged with the BJP in 2014.

A major factor that could sway votes is Prime Minister Modi himself. The master campaigner has swooped down on his home-State, and some slog-over hitting could see the BJP romp home with many overs in hand. He is still the State’s most popular leader, with a CSDS poll giving him approval ratings of 66 per cent in October.

Besides, the Congress’ campaign appears to have peaked far too early: while Rahul Gandhi did earn quite a few points with his campaigns online and on the ground, the Congress, in attempting to set the tone for the election early, may not be able to match Modi’s rhetoric.

Gujarati pride, or asmita as Modi has termed it, is another factor that cannot be discounted. Many may vote for Modi, rather than the BJP, out of a sense of pride. As Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar put it: “It is a sentiment which will influence the voters’ choice. We may even see the BJP winning a higher number of seats this time than it did in the 2012 Assembly polls.”

In the end, it makes material sense for a Gujarati to have a BJP government in the State when the party is in power at the Centre. Modi has been showering goodies on the State — including a bullet train to Mumbai — and the people in the State would want to keep it going.

Still, after four successive electoral wins for the BJP, it will be interesting to see if the various economic and political factors at play in Gujarat translate into a mandate for regime change, or a continuation of the saffron juggernaut.

Published on November 27, 2017
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