Assembly Election: Gujarat

Distress vote

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Chief Minister Vijay Rupani arriving at the party office, "Kamalam", in Gandhinagar for celebrations on December 18 after the BJP's victory in the Assembly elections. Photo: PTI

Pravin Ghoghari, BJP candidate from Karanj constituency in Surat, after winning the election. In spite of demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, which caused a major upheaval and disappointment in the small-scale business and trading community in the urban population, its vote went in favour of the BJP. Photo: PTI

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Hanjrapar village in Saurashtra region of Gujarat on September 25 during his two-day visit ahead of the Assembly election. The Saurashtra-Kutch region is singularly responsible for the higher Congress tally. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Imran Khedawala of the Congress after winning the Jamalpur-Khadia seat, in Amedabad on December 18. Photo: Santosh Hirlekar /PTI

In the neck-and-neck race in Gujarat, the Congress sweeps the Saurashtra region which is beset by widespread distress within the farming community and discontent among the Patidars.

In an electoral contest that went down to the wire, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 99 of the 182 seats that make up the Gujarat Legislative Assembly. The Congress performed surprisingly well with 80 seats; the party won 77 seats while its ally, the Bharatiya Tribal Party, bagged two, and an independent backed by it registered victory in one seat. Two independents and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) shared the remaining three seats in the Assembly. Unlike the previous elections where the BJP swept the State, the 2017 battle proved to be a tough one for it. The significantly lower margins of victory will apparently send home some hard messages. This is also the best performance by the Congress since 1985 in the State.

While drawing a range of conclusions from the results, analysts say that although a simple majority required to form the government is all that matters, the neck-and-neck race may slow down the BJP juggernaut and perhaps be an indicator to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

For 22 years, Gujarat has been ruled by the BJP and it was almost a given that the party would come back for a sixth term in this State that has historically seen the two national parties battle it out in every election. The presence of regional and other national parties is negligible. Most poll surveys said the BJP would win between 105 and 110 seats. The drop of the final tally to 99 was least expected. The day of the results was also different from those of previous elections. For two decades, the clean sweep by the party used to be clear by midday. This year, however, until evening the numbers for the BJP kept hovering around 100, and the final result was declared late in the day.

Congress sweep in Saurashtra

The voting patterns classified according to region (North Gujarat, South Gujarat, Central Gujarat and Saurashtra and Kutch), urban-rural divide, and key communities give a clearer picture of the results. Playing a significant role in each election is the Saurashtra-Kutch belt. This time, too, the region proved it can turn the game on its head. Of the 56 seats in the region, 32 went to the Congress. This is a massive jump from the 15 the party won in the 2012 elections. The Saurashtra-Kutch region is singularly responsible for the higher Congress tally.

The BJP secured just 23 seats in the region, down 13 seats from its 2012 tally. One seat went to an independent. The region has been under BJP influence for more than two decades, but the party was nervous this time. Saurashtra was the hotbed of the Patidar agitation. Apart from the BJP and the Congress, Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) too campaigned extensively in the region, knowing full well the crucial role it had in the elections. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his campaign from Bhuj, and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was criticised for spending too much time here.

The Patidar agitation, in which the community demanded that the Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota be extended to it too, and widespread distress within the farming community set off discontent in the region to an extent that had not been seen before. Farmers constitute approximately 73 per cent of its population; their votes apparently shifted towards the Congress. Significantly, 55 per cent of the Patel-dominated constituencies are also in this belt. Hardik Patel’s campaign seems to have paid off.

In the Central Gujarat region, the BJP won 25 seats, down three seats from its 2012 tally. The Congress gained three more than its 2012 tally to register victory in 21 seats. North Gujarat saw a close battle, with the BJP winning 27 seats (minus two from its 2012 tally) and the Congress gaining two and winning 22 seats. South Gujarat, which has been a BJP stronghold, continued that trend, with the ruling party winning 22 seats. The Congress secured just six seats here. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has made inroads into South Gujarat, with large pockets of tribal communities, with its work on social and economic uplift in this area that is extremely backward. Activists say saffronisation is almost complete in this belt; this is reflected in the election results.

Urban versus rural

When it comes to urban versus rural voters, the BJP is the clear winner. Narendra Modi is a favourite among the urban young, business and trader sections, as well as the upwardly mobile Gujarati. There are 69 constituencies in Gujarat located mostly in Central Gujarat with more than 50 per cent urban population. Although the BJP was on a weak wicket in the rural belt, grappling with issues such as agrarian distress and increasing unemployment, it appears that the urban voter bailed the party out. In Surat and Ahmedabad, the BJP registered victory by margins above 30,000 votes.

Interestingly, in spite of the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax and demonetisation, which caused a major upheaval and disappointment in the small-scale business and trading community in the urban population, the vote went in favour of the BJP. A trader from Surat said “the communal card” would have played a role here.

Winners and losers

The big winners in this election are the young and dynamic troika of Alpesh Thakor of the Congress, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, and contestants from PAAS led by Hardik Patel. Mevani, who contested as an independent candidate from Vadgam with the support of the Congress, polled 95,497 votes in a reserved constituency.

Alpesh Thakor, who emerged as the face of Gujarat’s OBCs who constitute about 40 per cent of the State’s population, won from Radhanpur with a margin of over 14,000 votes over his BJP rival. The Congress campaign received a massive shot in the arm when Alpesh Thakor joined the party in October this year. His mobilisation of the community was instrumental in the Congress’ gain.

Prominent contenders such as Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel were trailing in the initial rounds before winning the Rajkot West and Mehsana seats respectively. Chhotubhai Vasava, the founder of the Bharatiya Tribal Party, won from Jhagadia constituency with a margin of 48,948 votes. Vasava represented Jhagadia in the 2012 elections on the Janata Dal (United) ticket. He allied his party with the Congress, helping it secure 18 of the 26 reserved seats. Three key Congress leaders who lost are Arjun Modvadia from Porbandar, Shankarsinh Gohil from Mandvi and Chimanbhai Patel from Dabhoi.

The Congress’ relentless campaign reflected in its improved vote share. From 38.9 per cent in 2012, it improved to around 43 per cent if the vote share of its allies too is taken into account, according to Election Commission data. The percentage of voting was 68.41 per cent in the two-phase polls, a dip by 2.91 percentage points from 71.32 in 2012.

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