The Gujarat assembly election is significant in its own way. Gujarat has been a Bharatiya Janata Party bastion for last two decades. The state also happens to be the home ground of Narendra Modi – one of the most powerful men in the world of politics. It will not be wrong to say that Gujarat is a prestige state for Bharatiya Janata Party and they would like to win the state again in the next assembly elections. Indian National Congress, at the same time, would like to win the state and reclaim the lost ground of two decades. This is going to be an intense battle of prestige and survival. On the one hand, losing Gujarat to Indian National Congress would be a big setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the 2019 Parliamentary elections; and on the other the victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party will likely ease its path towards winning the 2019 Parliamentary election.
As they say, it is important to understand the history to predict the future. It is important for us to understand the brief history of Gujarat assembly election. In Gujarat, the Indian National Congress has been out of power since 1995. However, there was a brief period from October 1996 to March 1998 when Indian National Congress became part of the ruling alliance followed by Shankar Singh Vaghela’s quitting the BJP and forming the Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP). This was the last time Indian National Congress was part of the government in Gujarat. The BJP has been ruling the state since March 1998 but the party has been dominating the Gujarat assembly since 1995. In last two decades Bharatiya Janata Party has been consolidating its position in Gujarat. The story of last two assembly elections has been the extension of the growth story. In 2007 and 2012 assembly elections respectively 49.1 and 47.9 percent Gujarati voters voted in favor of Bharatiya Janata Party. During the same time in 2007 and 2012 assembly elections Indian National Congress managed to attract 38.0 percent and 38.8 percent votes. In last two decades the popularity of the two national parties – Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian National Congress has been on a rise in Gujarat. We are a testimony to the fact that in last two decades the state election has turned into two party contests. In Gujarat, Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian National Congress together command roughly ninety percent vote share. All other national and regional parties collectively command less than ten percent vote share. It will not be wrong to say that over the last two decades all other national and regional parties have lost relevance in the state.
If I have to go by the popular perception, this election may see the entry of three national and regional parties – Aam Aadmi Party, Nationalist Congress Party, and Vaghela’s party are experimenting their fate in the Gujarat elections. The Aam Aadmi Party is mostly a challenger. They can change the direction of the campaign and results of the election. The party has learnt from the debacle of Punjab and Goa election and will field candidates only on seats that meet certain criteria set by its central leadership. The Nationalist Congress Party will play the classic role of the spoiler for congress. The Nationalist Congress Party would divide the anti-BJP vote share in the state making the task difficult for the Indian National Congress. The party has decided to contest all 182 seats that would also mean that it will spoil the chances of revival of congress in all the 182 seats. The re-entry of Shankar Singh Vaghela’s party in Gujarat elections is yet another case of spoiler. Vaghela till recently was a member of congress and the tallest thakur leader. During his leadership, the thakurs in the last election voted mostly in the favor of Indian National Congress. In the last assembly elections in north Gujarat BJP won 13 of the 27 seats, while the Indian National Congress raised its tally from 6 to 14. The exit of Vaghela from Indian National Congress will damage its prospect in this area.
Impact of the entry of these national and regional parties is yet to be seen but in all probability the battle of Gujarat election is still between Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party. If I have to go back to the historic data, the Indian National Congress in Gujarat has been marginally increasing its vote share from 32.9 percent in 1995 to 38.9 per cent in 2012. In the last three assembly elections, Indian National Congress has been attracting on an average 39 percent vote share. The ruling party however has been doing extremely well in the state. The overall vote share of Bharatiya Janata Party has been on rise since 1995. It had reached around 49 percent under the Narendra Modi leadership. The party has been attracting 48-49 percent vote share for last three assembly elections. The simple mathematical calculation suggests that there is difference of ten percent of vote share between the ruling party and the party in opposition. This difference in vote share is also function of the urban and rural divide. The Indian National Congress has been successful in consolidating rural vote bank but has failed to entice the urban voters. The same is reflected in the recent local body elections. The Indian National Congress has consolidated its stand in the panchayats but failed to gain grounds among urban voters. In recent panchayat elections Indian National Congress managed to win 23 of 31 district panchayats and 113 of 193 panchayats but the Bharatiya Janata Party has won all big municipal corporations naming – Ahmedabad, Surat, Rajkot, Vadodara, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar and also captured 40 of 56 municipal corporations in small towns. The mathematics of the panchayat and municipal elections suggest that Indian National Congress is far from winning Gujarat. In the assembly of 182, Bharatiya Janata Party still holds command on the 67 urban and 20 semi-urban Assembly seats. It will not be wrong to say that Bharatiya Janata Party has been the urban and semi-urban phenomenon and the same also reflected in the last assembly elections results. In 2012 assembly elections, Bharatiya Janata Party won 15 of 16 seats in Surat, 15 of 17 seats in Ahmedabad, 3 of 4 seats in Rajkot, and all the seats of Gandhinagar, Vadodara and Bhavnagar.
All numbers are mostly in favor of BJP but this is going to be the best chance for the Indian National Congress to defeat the BJP in the assembly polls. Yes, this is the opportunity they have been waiting for, for last two decades. The number suggest that Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat even after two decades is not experiencing huge amount of anti-incumbency but the current local leadership, and chief ministers are struggling hard to match the comfort and popularity of Narendra Modi’s leadership; Bharatiya Janata Party right now does not have any stalwarts of Narendra Modi stature to run the party and the government in Gujarat; the rise of the unrest among Patel vote bank which is the largest vote bank for BJP in Gujarat; the emergence of parallel local leaders viz. Patel leader – Hardik Patel, and Dalit leader – Jignesh Mevani, is yet another challenge which Bharatiya Janata Party is facing; the local and regional leaders have opportunity to evoke the Gujarati Asmita card and challenge the BJP at center, the card which Bharatiya Janata Party has been playing for long; the rise of regional and national parties in the state will end the trend of bipolar elections in Gujarat. Despite this fertile ground, the Congress too has a long distance to cover. In recent times Indian National Congress has lost one of its pillars of strength in the form of Shankar Singh Vaghela.
In my view, bridging the gap of ten percent vote share is not an easy task. More so, when there is no symptoms of anti-incumbency. The congress need to rework on the campaign strategy and execution. They need to strengthen their presence in rural Gujarat and win the trust of the urban voters. The Indian National Congress also needs to rework the current equation of social engineering. The dynamics of the caste based politics in Gujarat is changing and if the same is not redefined in favor of Indian National Congress they might lose vote share instead of winning.
The dynamics of the caste based politics in Gujarat remained unchanged for two decades. If I have to go by the popular belief, the Patels which is 15 percent of the vote bank cast their vote for Bharatiya Janata Party; Brahmins, Jains which is roughly 5 percent mostly votes for the Bharatiya Janata Party; and the biggest block of vote bank – OBCs which is roughly 35 percent also cast their vote in favour of Bharatiya Janata Party. The sum total of the cast equation which is in favor of Bharatiya Janata Party – Brahmins, Jains, OBCs, and Patel add up to 55 percent. The Muslim vote bank which is 10 percent of the overall vote bank has been in support of Indian National Congress; a united bock of SC and ST which is 25 percent of the vote bank has been franchising their voting rights in favor of Indian National Congress; and Thakurs that contribute 8 percent of overall vote bank in last few elections were casting their votes in favor of congress. The sum total of the Indian National Congress caste equation – Thakurs, Dalits (Harijans), Tribals (Adivasis) and Muslims, politically known as THAMs – adds up to 42 percent. In recent times, the BJP seems to have also made some serious inroads among the old voting blocks of the congress. The change is the THAMs equation is result of the experiments Bharatiya Janata Party has been doing since 2015. The think tank of Bharatiya Janata Party, RSS understand that dynamics of caste equation is changing and hence to remain relevant Bharatiya Janata Party need to attract new vote banks.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, for last two years, has been trying to engineer a new social coalition in Gujarat. The effort is on since the core constituency of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Patidars, revolted against the government demanding reservation in government jobs. The Bharatiya Janata Party is aggressively exploring Tribals (Adivasis), Thakors and Kolis vote bank. The Thakors and Kolis are currently split almost equally between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress. It is important to mention that in thelast two assembly elections 16 of the 27 reserved seats for ST were won by the Indian National Congress and rest by Bharatiya Janata Party and others. The Bharatiya Janata Party is confident of winning more reserved seats in the upcoming elections.
It will not be wrong to say that the tribal belt is the new battleground of Gujarat election and any party who wants to win the state needs to register their win in tribal areas. These tribal votes are critical for Bharatiya Janata Party to register a respectable win and for congress to remain relevant. I must mention that if Bharatiya Janata Party succeeds in winning a small percentage of Tribals, Thakors and Kolis vote share, it would be a big blow to the Indian National Congress.
On the one hand RSS is working hard to divide the congress core vote bank; on the other hand the age old party Indian National Congress is still in the search of a concrete strategy to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party. They are trying hard to consolidate its rural base and device a plan to win the urban voters. I am confident of the fact that the Gujarat congress may soon devise a plan to increase the vote share but in the absence of an organization like RSS they will struggle hard to implement the same.
If I have to go by the popular belief Indian National Congress had a strong chance of winning the state had Anandiben Patel not been replaced as the Chief Minister of Gujarat and Shankar Singh Vaghela not quit the Indian National Congress. As of now the equation is very complex as there are new players in the fray, all parties need to work on their social engineering, the relevance of old equation needs to be tested. In all possible situations, the result of Gujarat election will set the tone for all upcoming assembly equations in 2018 – Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – and, the next general election of 2019. Evidently, there is a lot at stake for the main contenders including the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, Aam Aadmi Party, Nationalist Congress Party, and Vaghela’s party in the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections, 2017.