The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has won six consecutive Assembly elections in Gujarat, could be facing a close fight in the December round to elect the 15th Gujarat Assembly. The two-party battle between the Congress and the BJP has opened up to a wider contest this year with an ambitious Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) throwing its hat in the ring. Alongside, disgruntled BJP and Congress workers have filed nominations as independents while the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) is also fielding candidates in some seats, all of which have the potential to turn the election on its head.
Observers in Gujarat said that if the run-up to the election to the 182-seat Assembly is anything to go by, the results could spring a few surprises.
Party functionaries, activists, and commentators in Gujarat that Frontline spoke to gave a sense of the shift in mood compared to past elections where the BJP dominated.
The AAP has complicated Gujarat’s electoral tradition of bipolar contests. Reacting to the new entrant, the BJP launched a high-decibel campaign, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi reportedly making more trips to his home State than ever before.
The beleaguered Congress, which could apparently still win a significant number of seats, appears to be doing little to leverage whatever support it still enjoys. It is not clear what the AIMIM’s strategy is, but in all likelihood the party could play spoilsport in a few pockets.
Community factor vs issues
So, what is the Gujarat electorate voting for in this election? In the past caste and community identities trumped all other factors. Candidate selection was invariably based on a region’s social dynamics. While issues did play a role, they did not necessarily change voting patterns.
This year, however, the AAP has focussed on raising issues that resonate with the people—inflation, unemployment, neglect of agriculture, health, education, and small business. Across parties, campaign workers said that disillusionment linked to anti-incumbency was unusually visible. The mismanagement of COVID-19, which resulted in the deaths of lakhs of people, lies like a cloud over this election. So, between the issues raised by the AAP and the widespread disenchantment, voting behaviour may go beyond caste.
Rohit Prajapati, a rights activist who is tracking the campaign across the State, said: “The BJP will win but it will not be the popular vote. Based on candidate selection and the math, they will win a higher number of seats. However, we predict the vote share will be lower.”
He added: “We find tremendous resentment and discontentment in several pockets. Unlike previous elections, I feel people are more assertive on issues this time. The mood is definitely not as buoyant as it used to be. The BJP appears to be aware of this and is strategising accordingly.”
The 2017 election was a close call and the party knows that it cannot take victory for granted. In spite of the Modi factor, the party’s vote share then was 49.05 per cent, while the Congress got 41.44 per cent. The BJP won 99 seats and the Congress won 77.
Achyut Yagnik, founder of SETU: Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, said: “It’s a lacklustre election this time. With the Congress showing no imagination, there is really no major opposition to the BJP. In fact, the tribal belt, an old supporter of the Congress, will probably vote BJP due to the Congress’ incompetency. However, there are pockets such as Saurashtra and South Gujarat where both AAP and Congress could get a few seats.”
Yagnik said caste would still play a role, but added that the emergence of Hindu sects could be even more influential. For instance, the Swami Narayan and Swadhyaya groups have a massive following. He said: “Hindutva has taken over from caste. Hindutva is their trump card if all else fails. Urban Gujarat is entirely saffron, completely cultivated by the BJP. It is a given that this block will not trust anyone else.”
Additionally, the BJP has obtained the support of the Patidar community (Patels) by giving tickets to 44 members of the community. In 2017, the BJP and the Patidars were at loggerheads over the issue of reservation, which blew up and became a major headache for the ruling party.
According to Census 2011, Gujarat’s religious make-up is 88.6 per cent Hindu, 9.7 per cent Muslim, 1 per cent Jain, 0.5 per cent Christian, and marginal Sikh and Buddhist populations. The Census does not give a caste breakdown, but research by SETU suggests that Other Backward Classes (OBCs) constitute 43 per cent of the population, the Patidar 12.6 per cent, the tribal people 15 per cent, and the Scheduled Castes 8 per cent.
Ahead of the 1980 Assembly election, Congress veteran Madhavsinh Solanki floated the KHAM formula (Koli Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, and Muslim) with the agenda of creating a vote bank and promised to provide reservation to OBCs and minorities among them.
The strategy clicked and the Congress stormed to power winning a whopping 141 seats. A Congress candidate said that the party had decided to employ the same strategy this time too, but it may not produce the 1980 results primarily because candidates need to be better matched to the constituencies.
Wooing the tribal vote
Gujarat’s tribal and SC population is much larger than in several other States and at election time they are a key factor in any party’s political strategy.
Anand Mazgaonkar, an environment and rights activist who works in tribal areas, said: “The fact that in the past few months the BJP government has rolled back several big projects affecting the tribal belt is reason enough to believe they are worried.”
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He added: “There isn’t one overarching issue. But there is a lot of discontentment. On the ground there is no momentum. The BJP campaign always had a thud about it but there is no traction this time. The fact that they had to resort to a threat on Modi’s life again means they are clutching at straws.”
Prajapati said: “The bullet train launch took away large tracts of their [tribal] land. We do not believe the compensation was adequate. People can see the injustice.”
Splitting the vote
Broadly, the urban, higher-to-middle income segment is believed to vote for the BJP, while the Congress gets support from a few rural pockets and the tribal and SC segments. Additionally, the grand old party gets the support of the State’s 9 per cent Muslim population. Interestingly, the Congress rarely fields a proportionate number of Muslim candidates. This time there are only four in the party’s final list.
Observers said that the anti-incumbency vote will go the AAP way as people are curious about the new party and fed up with the Congress, especially after the defection of several MLAs to the BJP.
There was open rebellion in the BJP when 42 sitting MLAs were denied the ticket. State party leaders justified the move saying they were looking at the “winnability” factor. It is likely that the party had to accommodate several Congress defectors. A BJP functionary added that since many of the candidates were sure to win, the party would not risk replacing them.
Indira Hirway, an economist based in Ahmedabad, said: “It has been an unfair campaign. The Prime Minister used his position to declare all kinds of projects. Other parties do not have this advantage. Of course, they want to win at any cost. There is a lot at stake, especially with 2024 around the corner.”
Champalal Bothra, a veteran Congress leader from Surat who was denied the ticket, said: “The AAP is a surprise factor. There is a good chance of them getting three or four seats in Saurashtra and a couple in north Gujarat. The AAP has led a loud campaign. People are visibly upset with the BJP. It is a misconception that the AAP will cut into only the Congress vote. They can also affect the BJP’s stronghold on urban areas.”
If the AAP makes a significant dent in this key State, the road to 2024 will take a new direction, say several commentators.
- The BJP is likely to win in the upcoming Gujarat Assembly election, but with a lower vote share.
- The AAP is focussing on raising issues that resonate with the people, which might spring a few surprises.
- There is widespread resentment against the BJP in the tribal belt of the State.
- The anti-incumbency sentiment may eat into the Congress votes. The emergence of Hindu sects could also influence results.