In the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, whose results were declared on December 8, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retained Gujarat with an emphatic win but lost Himachal Pradesh to the Congress. An ambitious Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which had entered the fray in both States, bagged five seats in Gujarat but drew a blank in Himachal Pradesh.
The BJP’s seventh successive win in Gujarat means that it continues to hold the State even 27 years after it first came to power there in March 1995. Winning 156 of the 182 Assembly seats, the BJP surpassed its own record of 127 won in 2002. It also beat the highest Congress tally of 149 seats recorded in 1985.
The AAP’s five seats (and a vote share of nearly 13 per cent) is significant because it qualifies the newcomer as a national party and heralds its entry into Gujarat politics. As per Election Commission of India (ECI) guidelines, a party must enjoy a vote share of above six per cent in at least four States to earn the national party label.
The 2022 election is the first time Gujarat has witnessed a triangular contest. Historically, the contest has always been between the Congress and the BJP. As predicted by exit polls, the AAP cut into the Congress vote. ECI data showed that in 34 seats, the AAP came in second behind the BJP.
Interestingly, in Himachal Pradesh, the Congress doubled its tally from the previous election, bagging 40 of the 68 seats. The BJP won 25 seats, 19 less than what it won in 2017. The three remaining seats were wrested by independents, all of them BJP rebels.
There was no significant difference between the vote shares of the two main contestants, indicating that the contest was close.
The almost equal division of votes, with the Congress at 43.9 per cent and the BJP at 43 per cent, showed that the contest remained primarily a bipolar one, unlike Gujarat. The AAP was unable to make any dent, securing 1.10 per cent of the votes. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) put up candidates in 53 seats but could not make any impact either.
Key takeaways from Gujarat
The Gujarat results clearly indicate that Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to enjoy tremendous clout in his home State. At the same time, the AAP’s valiant performance indicates that the State might be open to the idea of a new alternative.
The main victim of the AAP’s emergence is the Congress, which was not only unable to enthuse voters but lost most of its assured vote bank to the AAP. It won just 17 seats compared to 77 in 2017.
For the AAP, this is a huge boost; it proved it has the gumption to take on the mighty BJP and be rewarded for its efforts. If the party sorts itself out on the ideology and religion front, it might find a support base among the minority and marginalised communities in Gujarat.
Data from the ECI showed that the BJP secured more than half of the total votes polled, garnering a 52.50 per cent vote share.
The Congress took 27.28 per cent, and the AAP 12.9 per cent, with three independents, a Samajwadi candidate, and NOTA accounting for the rest. The voter turnout in the election was 64.33 per cent. Nearly 3.16 crore voters out of a total of 4.91 crore registered eligible voters exercised their franchise on December 1 and 5, according to data from the ECI.
The BJP gained 57 seats more than the 99 it won in 2017, while the Congress lost 60 after winning 77 in 2017. The interesting point is that most of the 60 legislators defected to the BJP over the course of the past four years.
The pockets won by the Congress were: Abdasa, Vav, Patan, Kankrej, Vijapur, Vadgam, Danta, Khedbrahma, Lunawala, Anklav, Khambat, Porbandar, Manavadar, Keshod, Somnath, Chanasma, and Vansda. Of these, only two seats are Muslim-dominated areas and five are reserved seats.
The AAP won the Jamjodhpur, Visavadar, Botad, Gariadhar, and Dedhiapada constituencies.
Gujarat has a sizeable population of tribal people (14.7 per cent), Scheduled Castes (6.7 per cent), and Muslims (9.7 per cent). They largely remain Congress supporters and are outliers in the wave of support for the BJP. But in the absence of a strong Congress, the AAP stepped into this area and capitalised.
Achyut Yagnik, veteran political observer and founder of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, said: “It is a reasonably good start for a party attempting to be a third front in a State that has been hostile to parties other than the BJP and Congress. A combination of the candidate belonging to the dominant community, a weak Congress candidate, and the anti-incumbency factor took them across the finish line.”
The Modi factor
Equally, the AAP’s high-decibel campaign appears to have spurred the BJP into a “battle of prestige”, as observers termed it. Rattled by the AAP’s entry and perhaps worried by the close win in the 2017 Assembly election, the BJP pulled out all stops, with Modi making at least nine trips to participate in 27 rallies across the State.
Ahead of the election, Modi announced several big-ticket projects for the State. His critics pointed out that in doing so, he misused his position as Prime Minister, but that was hardly likely to perturb Modi. He sold the “double engine” model—the same party at the Centre and the State—at all the rallies. Yagnik attributed the landslide victory to the “Modi factor”. A master of optics, Modi evokes blind trust, as this correspondent found. Time and again voters in Gujarat said they had voted for Modi, the BJP was secondary. “Gujaratis enjoy the fact that the country’s top leaders are Gujarati. If they can lead the country, they can lead the State,” Yagnik said.
Ashish Mehta, a businessman in Ahmedabad, said: “It helped that the Gujarat media focussed solely on the BJP campaign and paid little attention to the other parties. No one can beat the BJP when it comes to using the media.”
The fact that the BJP candidate could win even the Morbi seat, which recently witnessed a horrific bridge collapse on the back of almost certain government-level corruption, is something for the country’s electorate to reflect upon.
Poaching from the Congress
Modi’s popularity makes a good talking point, but the BJP is also known for its army of ground-level cadre who contribute to efficient booth management. The masterstroke, however, has been the poaching of key Congress leaders, a tactic the party has used repeatedly. This ensured that they covered a lot of ground in districts that have traditionally voted Congress.
For instance, Bhagvan Barad, the winner from Talala, had won the same seat on a Congress ticket in 2017. Similarly, Chhota Udaipur, a reserved seat, has been held by the Rathva family for 55 years. Mohan Rathva (78), veteran Congressman and sitting MLA, quit the Congress to join the BJP recently. The party gave his son Rajendrasingh Rathva the Chhota Udaipur ticket and he won comfortably. And the party co-opted Patidar leader Hardik Patel from the Congress, the man whose agitation had led to the BJP losing significant seats in 2017, thus getting back the influential Patel vote. Similarly, with Alpesh Thakor joining the BJP, the 24 per cent Thakor community vote was almost guaranteed.
Another factor is that the BJP’s voter base is largely in the urban areas, and more than half of Gujarat’s population lives in its many towns and cities. The party’s pillar is the business community, particularly the middle and richer income categories. The party has also worked hard to cultivate the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who form a large chunk of the population.
It may be concluded the Congress performance in 2017 owed a lot to the Patidar agitation. The Patels, a significant community, were upset with the BJP, which was unwilling to consider reservation for economically backward Patels. The community is believed to have voted en masse for the Congress.
This time, poor State-level leadership, a pale campaign compared with those of the BJP and the AAP, and the absence of Rahul Gandhi and other top leaders culminated in a chastening defeat. Will the party learn a lesson?
Key takeaways from HP
The brash confidence that worked so well in Gujarat for the BJP seemed to come undone in the hilly State of Himachal Pradesh. The party was sure of repeating a term, and its election slogan played with that idea. The BJP conducted a high-decibel campaign involving the top leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The setback is doubly chastening because Himachal Pradesh is also the home State of BJP national president J.P. Nadda and Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur. Almost the entire Union Cabinet campaigned hard; yet many sitting Ministers were defeated in direct contests with the Congress by more or less decisive margins. Interestingly, outgoing Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur was re-elected in Seraj with a margin of over 30,000 votes, the highest in the election.
Congress candidates registered big margins of over 10,000 votes in Nagrota, Rohru, Shahpur, and Shimla Rural, whereas BJP nominees won with handsome margins in Mandi, Nurpur, and Seraj. The lowest margin for the Congress was in the reserved seat of Bhoranj, where its candidate won by a mere 60 votes.
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The Congress heavyweights who won included the campaign-in-charge Sukhwinder Singh Sukhu, former Congress Legislative Party leader Mukesh Agnihotri, legislators Kuldeep Rathore and R.S. Bali, and Vikramaditya Singh, son of former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh. In Sujanpur, Rajinder Singh Rana, who defeated Prem Kumar Dhumal in 2017, retained his seat with a narrow margin of 399 votes.
Major losses for the party included Asha Kumari, a six-time MLA from Dalhousie who lost to the BJP’s Dhavinder Singh by a margin of 9,918 votes. Other Congress bigwigs who lost were Khimi Ram from Banjar and Kaul Singh from Darang.
BJP heavyweights who lost included Ministers Rajeev Bindal, Rajiv Saizal, Virender Kanwar, Govind Thakur, Rakesh Pathania, Ram Lal Markanda, Suresh Bharadwaj, Kaul Singh, and Sarveen Chaudhary.
Boost for Congress
For the Congress, the Himachal Pradesh victory will be a much needed shot in the arm, given its devastating performance in Gujarat and in the corporation elections in Delhi.
The BJP’s communal rhetoric did not work in the State with the population being largely Hindu, giving the truth once more to the adage that the BJP needs minorities to justify its existence. The BJP did declare that it would implement the Uniform Civil Code if it formed the government, but neither this nor its outreach to the Hatti community in Sirmaur and the trans-Giri area, by giving them Scheduled Tribe status, bore dividends.
In the five seats with a significant Hatti population, namely Pacchad, Nahan, Sri Renukaji (SC), Paonta Sahib, and Shillai, the Congress won three, although the victory margins in two were narrow. It could have won the Pacchad seat had it mollified its seven-time MLA, Gangu Ram Musafir, to withdraw his nomination. Musafir secured a substantial 13,187 votes, dividing the Congress votebank.
The official Congress candidate Dyal Pyari lost to Reena Kashyap of the BJP by a little over 3,000 votes. Reena Kashyap was the only woman from any party to win in the Assembly election.
The seats that the Congress lost to the BJP by less than 1,000 votes in direct contests included Bilaspur, Darang, and Sri Naina Deviji. Likewise, it won narrowly in Bhoranj, Rampur, Sujanpur, Sri Renukaji, and Shillai.
One clue to the Congress victory in Himachal might be provided by the public anger over unemployment, inflation, the short-tenured Agnipath scheme (this is a prime Army recruitment area), the apple growers’ anger, and the BJP’s reluctance to make its position clear on the old pension scheme. This was also why the three independents, all BJP rebels, were elected.
Local issues dominated the election while communalism and national security, old favourites of the BJP, could not be successfully invoked. In other words, BJP’s opponents might have to focus strongly on local issues to take the limelight away from the red herrings the BJP uses so well. The BJP’s “double engine” rhetoric and the histrionics of its leaders did not work.
“The fact that the BJP lost in a largely Hindu State shows that its claim of being the sole representative of Hindus is a bogus one. The victory of the Congress is also a vindication that Hindutva politics doesn’t work and has reached its saturation point,” a Congress leader from Himachal Pradesh said.
The large number of rebels did not seem to have adversely affected either the Congress or the BJP. There was a palpable anti-BJP wave in which the rebel factor proved insignificant.
In a closely fought election, the ghar wapsi of rebels could have an impact, with the possibility of toppling the elected government. As a matter of fact, even though the Congress won 40 seats to the BJP’s 25, the party took the precaution of cloistering its legislators in a safe haven until government formation. Going by the experience of Goa, Manipur, or Madhya Pradesh, the Congress has had to play safe.
The strategy of not projecting a chief ministerial candidate during the campaign seems to have worked in the party’s favour. Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu, the Congress campaign leader, had earlier told Frontline that the party stood for “structural change”. Having won on that note, perhaps this is an opportunity it could build upon.
- BJP creates history in Gujarat by winning seventh term and records highest tally ever.
- Modi factor plays crucial role in cementing BJP victory in Gujarat.
- Congress wrests Himachal Pradesh from BJP by capitalising on public anger and using right strategy.
- Congress, BJP fight neck-to-neck in HP; three BJP rebels post wins.
- AAP makes decent debut in Gujarat, winning five seats, but draws a blank in HP.