Time for Gujarati voters to decide their electoral fate

Leaders of BJP, Congress and AAP are going all-out to woo voters in the state.

The dates of Assembly elections in Gujarat are not announced yet, but the election atmosphere in Gujarat has already been ignited since last few months. The leaders of BJP, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party have started holding meetings, yatras, door-to-door campaign, promises, slogans, hoardings, and what not. All leaders are trying to attract voters in their favour through their tactics, strategy, ideology and styles. There is a big change in political scenario in the state in comparison with last assembly election. In 2017 Assembly election, the BJP and the Congress had contested with multiple public rallies and high voltage rhetorical exchanges between two main leaders Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. Pre-poll election surveys and exit polls predicted that the BJP would electorally overcome the Congress easily, but the saffron party did win with a simple majority. The results showed that the BJP was in a precarious political situation that called for an increased dose of “Modi magic” and Amit Shah’s meticulous election management to defeat one of the biggest challenges the resurgent Congress launched against the saffron party in Gujarat.

The BJP crossed the majority mark with a surplus of seven seats (total 99 seats), which was a loss of 16 seats as compared to the 2012 elections. The situation became considerably worse for BJP when compared to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, as the party suffered a startling loss of 66 assembly seats. This means that since its ascendancy in Gujarat, the BJP tally of seats has for the first time dipped below the three-digit figure, 51 short of its ambitious target of winning 150 Assembly seats. The 49% vote share of the BJP marked an increase of one percentage point, as compared with 48% in 2012, but it still lost 16 seats in the elections. The reason for this was that while it won seats with an average margin of around 30,000 votes, the Congress won its Assembly seats with an average margin of around 13,000 seats. Thus, Congress votes were uniformly spread across the state leading to a better vote–seat conversion, while the BJP had a lesser rate of conversion of votes into winning seats and more wasted votes.

However, the BJP distinguished itself by outpolling the Congress among all segments like Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ ST) groups, regions, and rural-urban areas. A vote-share comparison with the 2014 elections reveals a major let-down for the BJP, as it lost 10 percentage points in vote share. It had reaffirmed its dominance in the state’s urban areas by winning 46 of the 56 seats with a vote share of 58%. The Congress had failed to form the government for the sixth time, but it made an astonishing political return by gaining 77 Assembly seats; 16 more than in the 2012 elections. It had 44 MLAs in its fold; considering defections and horse-trading it gained 31 more seats in this election. Despite increasing its vote share from 39% in the 2012 elections to 41%, it scored poorly in the state’s urban areas, garnering just 10 of the 56 Assembly members.  However, it continued its dominance in the rural terrain of Gujarat by winning 67 out of the 120 seats, 14 seats more than the BJP.

The BJP had lost one seat each in North, South, and Kutch, as well as two seats in Central Gujarat and 11 seats in its traditional bastion of Saurashtra, according to the regional equations. The Congress performed well in Saurashtra by winning 13 seats more compared with 2012 elections. Overall, it is clear that the 8% gap in vote share of the two parties shows that the BJP still remains the favourite party of the Gujarati electorate.

This was the analysis at a glance, of the 2017 elections. In the subsequent years, the BJP, keeping in mind the calculus of downfall behind so-called victory, systematically improved from its weaknesses which were exposed in the election results.

Present political scenario

This time it is not bipolar fight but Aam Adami Party has also entered in to Gujarat politics. Ahead of assembly elections, various castes groups along with political parties, have begun mobilisation drives to push for their demands such as having better representation and a larger say in the State’s politics. In various parts of the State, different castes and communities are holding meetings and conventions to further their interests.

Patidars-the most powerful socio-economic force

Since the 1980s, the Patidars have been the most powerful socio-economic force in Gujarat. This community makes up around 14-15% of the population of Gujarat. In Saurashtra, the Patidar community, which is a dominant caste with disproportionate hold over the region’s political economy, held a series of meetings ostensibly to discuss the issues of their community. However, the real purpose was to demonstrate their collective power.

The Patidar community is divided between Leuva, Kadva, Anjana and sub-caste Matiya Patel. 80% of the Patidars are the Leuva and Kadva Patels. While the Leuva Patel section has been an ardent voter of the BJP, the Kadva Patel, the clan to which Hardik Patel belongs, had shifted to the Congress as seen in 2017 assembly elections. This was a reason why Congress got nearly 41.4% votes in 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, an elevation from 39% it got in 2012. There are almost 70 seats in the 182 assembly seats in Gujarat where Patel votes matter a lot and can give an edge to any political force. 

OBCs: The most dominant
political group

The OBCs constitute nearly 52% of the population in the state. There are 50 reserved seats for OBC, 32 for ST and 20 for SC in the Gujarat assembly. The Congress has an OBC leader as PCC chief Jagdish Thakor and Isudan Gadhavi is AAP’s joint general secretary. Both wooing them, the BJP has refocused its attention on the non-dominant groups among them.

OBCs include the Vishvakarmas, who comprise artisans like carpenters, blacksmiths; the Bhois, who traditionally pick water chestnuts and lotus stems and sell the same for livelihood; Ranas, who specialise in zari work on textiles; who rear camels or work as drummers; Odhs, who build mud houses and dig ponds; Goswamis, a community of sadhus; Vanzaras, a nomadic community; and Nai-Vanand, who are barbers. There are nearly 146 such OBC communities in Gujarat. The Kolis are spread across the region, with predominant presence in Bhavnagar, Botad, Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Surendranagar and Rajkot districts. They are engaged in the agriculture, fishing and construction and building sectors. The Chaudhary community has a significant presence in Mehsana, Banaskantha, Sabarkantha and Gandhinagar districts. They are mostly engaged in farming and dairy farming and are the main milk suppliers in the region.

Tribals’ considerable sway

The tribal community that holds considerable sway in the state politics, accounting for 15 per cent of the population. There are 27 seats are reserved for ST in Gujarat. However, there are 47 Assembly seats in Gujarat where the ST population is more than 10%. In 40 Assembly seats, there is more than 20% ST population and thirty-one Assembly seats have more than 30% ST population.

The Congress has remained popular choice for tribal communities almost for a long time, but this time AAP’s relentless campaigning in the state should be a cause of concern for BJP and Congress both. Back in August, Arvind Kejriwal pledged to the completely neglected tribal communities the implementation of the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA Act), 1996 in the tribal regions of Gujarat if his party was voted to power. The AAP is not the only one promising its implementation in the state. Earlier this year, Congress leaders also spoke about PESA as well.

Dalits continue to face problems

Dalits form around 7% of the population and continue to face discrimination, untouchability, oppression and violence from employers and socially dominant groups. Long-term government initiatives of economic redistribution and productive asset generation, say in the form of land reforms, have tended to reach them on paper only.

BJP is ruling since last 25 years. They are hoping to win on Narendra Modi’s popularity and his work for development. Congress is batting on the issues of inflation, unemployment and misrule in the state, whereas AAP is in the role of new hope for Gujaratis, blaming BJP and Congress for their “hidden tie-up” and trying to enter Gujarat politics. Now it’s a turn of Gujarati voters to decide whom to entrust the fate of the state.

Sudhir S. Raval is a veteran journalist and columnist from Gujarat and Consulting Editor with iTV Network, New Delhi.