Gujarat

The grip tightens

Print edition : June 07, 2019

BJP workers celebrate at Kamalam, the party’s State headquarters, in Gandhinagar on May 23. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Chief Minister Vijay Rupani after meeting BJP workers at the party headquarters on May 23. Photo: Vijay Soneji

The brief relaxing of the BJP’s hold on Gujarat, glimpsed in the 2017 Assembly election, is comprehensively reversed in the parliamentary election, with the party securing all 26 Lok Sabha seats in the State with massive margins.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has mopped up all 26 Lok Sabha constituencies of Gujarat, with margins far higher than those of 2014, and claimed a 60 per cent vote share. Party president Amit Shah won from Gandhinagar by over five lakh votes, breaking the victory margin record set by L.K. Advani, who contested from the constituency in 2014.

Gujarat is, of course, considered a safe State for the BJP and has from the early 1990s provided the party with a large number of Members of Parliament. In the 2017 Assembly elections, however, Gujarat witnessed the resurgence of the Congress, and the BJP’s vice-like grip appeared to be loosening. Drought, farmers’ distress, unemployment and general rural discontent fuelled predictions that the BJP would lose a few constituencies in this Lok Sabha election.

The results have belied the predictions. The questions that arise centre on whether the BJP’s juggernaut is too hard to beat. Is the Congress not able to understand the depth of this battle? Does it have the capacity to fight it? A look at the margins by which BJP candidates have won indicates how ingrained the party is in this State.

C.R. Patil from Navsari constituency in South Gujarat defeated his nearest rival by a whopping 6,78,545 votes. In Surat, Darshana Jardosh won by 5,47,155 votes. In Vadodara, Ranjan Bhatt won by 5,63,951 votes. As many as 10 others posted victory margins of more than three lakh votes over their Congress rivals. This result will perhaps compel Modi to induct more MPs from Gujarat in his Cabinet. Currently, three Gujarat Rajya Sabha members are Union Cabinet Ministers. Union Minister Jasvantsinh Bhabhor from Dahod is the only Lok Sabha member from Gujarat who was in Modi’s previous Cabinet.

Faithful electorate

What made Gujarat’s voters put aside their frustrations and anger with the regime and elect it back to power? Opinions given to this magazine by observers in Gujarat say it was Modi mania again, if not the overt Modi wave seen in 2014. To begin with, Narendra Modi was Gujarat’s Chief Minister for more than a decade and is a familiar face. The BJP fought a Modi-centric election. Having “their” man at the helm of the country is perhaps a matter of prestige and pride for voters in Gujarat. The idea of an alternative in the form of Rahul Gandhi or other Congress leaders cut no ice in this State.

Modi is more than just the party’s star campaigner in Gujarat, notwithstanding some disillusionment. Local people say he has a messiah-like image. A source who attended Modi’s last rally in Patan district said “the man’s ability to resonate with Gujaratis is unmatched”.

Amit Shah’s choice of Gandhinagar for his debut run as a Lok Sabha member appears to have had a positive effect. People seem to have bought into the BJP’s nationalism campaign. It would take the Modi-Shah combine to save this country from enemy forces, a voter commented during the election campaign. The massive posters splashed across Ahmedabad with images of Modi saying the BJP was the only party that could rid the country of terrorism seem to have driven home that message.

Achyut Yagnik, secretary of the Centre for Knowledge and Social Action based in Ahmedabad, said: “Hindutva prevailed over everything. We thought the urban-rural divide and agricultural distress would play a role in the vote, but clearly that did not.” He added that the BJP was also extremely well-organised. “Unlike the Congress, it is a cadre-based party with an exceptional reach across the State. Booth management, for instance, is highly efficient. In this election, BJP workers went from house to house to ensure voters were on the list. During that exercise, they would have rekindled the voters’ faith in their party. These were factors that played a critical role,” he said.

A BJP supporter expressed the sentiment prevailing in Gujarat’s urban areas: “What can one man do in five years? He [Modi] needs another five to make a difference.” Most of Gujarat’s cities, especially Ahmedabad, have seen improved infrastructure, road connectivity, cleanliness drives and electrification. According to media reports, businessmen and young people came out in large numbers to vote for the party.

The BJP’s phenomenal election machinery also helped. Champalal Bothra, a Congress member and president of the Federation of Surat Textile Traders Association (FOSTTA), said that the BJP’s field and booth management was superior to that of any other party. “They would have reached the homes of voters before the Congress even entered the gully [lane],” he said. “What sets the BJP workers apart from other party workers in Gujarat is their confidence and enthusiasm.”

Agricultural distress in Gujarat is currently severe as vast swathes reel under drought and crop failure. For this reason, the Saurashtra belt was expected to vote against the ruling party. Yet, the farming community seems to have thrown its weight behind the BJP. Nimesh Patel, a farmer activist in Rajkot, attributed it to the lack of a plausible alternative: “At least they know Modi. There did not seem a good enough option projected by the opposition.”

Kutch, usually a safe seat, Anand, Banaskantha and Patan were supposedly shaky constituencies for the BJP this time. However, even these seats elected the BJP with margins of two to three lakh votes.

Sagar Rabari, leader of the Khedut Ekta Manch, a farmers’ organisation based in Ahmedabad, said: “The verdict does not have any connection with the ground realities. The urban vote is understandable. The urban population comprises the BJP’s support base. We are perplexed with the rural vote. What made them vote saffron?” Yagnik’s answer to this question was: “The BJP led a professional and well-thought-out campaign which could not be matched by the Congress. Among other things, the Congress could not put up a cohesive image.”

All 26 constituencies went to the polls in Gujarat on April 23 in the third phase of the general election. The State witnessed an all-time high voter turnout of 64.11 per cent, which surpassed the State’s previous record of 63.77 per cent in the 1967 election. In 2014, the figure was 63.66 per cent.

Bipolar polity

For the past three decades, Gujarat has essentially been a two-party State, with the BJP and the Congress fighting it out in both Assembly and parliamentary elections. There seems to be no space for regional parties and independent legislators in Gujarat politics. This is broadly attributed to the fact that, historically, several Congress, Janata Party and, later, BJP heavyweights emerged from the State. The national parties, therefore, retained their strength in the State.

Until the late 1980s, Gujarat was a Congress bastion. The KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) theory, which was propounded by the Congress to create a vote bank, backfired over time as it alienated the dominant Patel population. The Patels moved towards the BJP, which wrested control from the Congress in the 1989 general election. Ever since, the Congress has failed to resurrect itself. In the 2017 Assembly election, the Congress clocked an impressive performance on the back of the Patidar agitation and the public resentment against the implementation of demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST). It won 88 seats against the BJP’s 99 in the 182-seat Assembly.

The Assembly election results rekindled the Congress’ hopes. In the 2019 general election, it expected the anti-incumbency factor to fetch at least 10 seats for the party. But a flawed campaign, illogical candidate selection and poor leadership on the national stage destroyed the Congress’ prospects, said Bothra. “Why did they field such a weak candidate in Surat? Traders here are furious as they have been hit severely by GST. They would have voted Congress had the candidate been stronger,” he said.

The floods of 2016 and the recent drought have left Saurashtra scarred. The crashing prices of cotton and tobacco, the principal cash crops of the region, triggered a crisis across districts. Observers said that the Congress did field a convincing candidate—Paresh Dhanani, a strong, young Patel nominee—from Amreli in Saurashtra. But he, too, lost to the BJP’s Naran Bhai Kacchadiya by a massive and perplexing two lakh votes.

The young and fiery Patidar leader Hardik Patel had been expected to sway the vote in the Mehasana belt and tilt the 15 per cent Patel vote in favour of the Congress. His campaign during the Assembly election was considered to have affected the BJP’s performance. Hardik Patel was not able to contest because the Gujarat High Court refused his plea for a stay on his conviction in a 2015 rioting case. In any case, he failed to influence the voters’ choice.

The election result in Gujarat also shows that Assembly election results are not necessarily a pointer to the next parliamentary election outcome. After the 2017 Assembly election, the Congress faced a setback with legislators defecting to the BJP. Along with the Lok Sabha election, byelections were held in the Assembly segments of Dhrangadhra, Manavadar, Unjha and Jamnagar (Rural), which fall under the parliamentary constituencies of Surendranagar, Porbandar, Mehsana and Jamnagar. Three of the four sitting Members of the Legislative Assembly who had resigned to join the BJP were fielded by the ruling party in their respective seats. All three won, taking the BJP’s tally in the Assembly to 104. Additionally, three sitting BJP MLAs contested the parliamentary election and won.

Interestingly, 20 of the 26 BJP candidates in the parliamentary election were 2014 candidates. The BJP’s masterful planning replaced three sitting MPs. The party sensed that it would face anti-incumbency. The other three were Congress defectors.

There was never a doubt that Gujarat’s electorate would choose the BJP. The magnitude of the victory, however, has caught even the most loyal supporter by surprise.

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