Gujarat Elections 2017: Hope for Congress, Lessons for Modi

The outcome of the Gujarat assembly elections has a direct bearing on Modi’s policies in the state and the centre, the main one being that of squeezing the resources of the rural masses to enrich select urban sections.   The impact or disillusionment could be understood from the fact that as many as 5.5 lakh voters pressed the None of the Above (NOTA) button, pushing the BJP’s victory margins to as low as 250 to 900 on at least 10 seats as against the Congress. The NOTA votes in such constituencies are three to five times the victory margins. The Congress had no credible chief ministerial face and could not turn the tide in its favour.

The December 2017 assembly election in Gujarat revolved completely around Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the results are a referendum to his three-year rule at the centre and 22 years in Gujarat. Given this, however, there is nothing either for him or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to celebrate. The outcome clearly tells us that the Modi magic is on the wane  despite the BJP government in Gujarat walking into its sixth consecutive term. 

From  dreaming of 150+ seats to an apologetic 99 __ just seven more than the simple majority number __ in a House of 182, it was a sure fall from grace for the BJP in Modi’s home state. The BJP winning Gujarat is not as much of a takeaway from the December elections, as the fact that it had to huff and puff and sweat to prevent a defeat.
And what makes it significant is that the outcome has a direct bearing on Modi’s policies, in Gujarat and at the centre. The main one being the policy of  squeezing the resources of the rural masses to enrich select urban sections.   

The Gujarat results are a warning bell for the Modi brand of politics. The BJP is originally a party of Banias (trading class), and by habit, bends towards the urbane, the worldly-wise, the city centric. It is no surprise then that Modi’s rhetoric and complete body politic remains centred around the urban middle class -- the higher you are in the socio-economic echelon, the more he woos you and the more you tilt towards him.

When he speaks of development, it is largely about good roads and infrastructure to facilitate large industrial investment, not the small scale and medium scale industry which used to be Gujarat’s economic backbone. This was badly damaged by the twin blows of demonetisation that did not serve its purpose at all and the ill-conceived Goods and Services Tax (GST). That this did not translate into votes majorly against the BJP was because of the fear that it would not make business sense to rub him the wrong way considering that it his government at the centre. But still, the impact or disillusionment could be understood from the fact that as many as 5.5 lakh voters pressed the None of the Above (NOTA) button, pushing the BJP’s victory margins to as low as 250 to 900 on at least 10 seats as against the Congress. The NOTA votes in such constituencies are three to five times the victory margins. In other words, the BJP was on the verge of defeat in those seats. 

In keeping with the skew in Modi’s so-called development model that panders to crass urbanisation, you will not hear him much raising an alarm about Gujarat’s apologetic human development numbers or the health and education infrastructure in the state, whose riches and his government’s policies do not reflect in the actual building of a holistic society.

When he speaks to farmers about farmers, whom he generally refers to only after all the talk of industrial development is done with, he comes up with ideas like advising them to go in for bee keeping in a big way, grow bamboo around their fields to encash on it, the use of modern technology and yes, contract farming. 

This, when the farmers are worried about getting remunerative prices for their key crops like groundnut and cotton in Gujarat, when they are worried about irrigation, when they are concerned over their increasing input costs. When he speaks of improvement in the education and health sectors, he speaks of public-private-partnership, which in other words, means the government hiving off its essential duty to facilitate the private and the corporate sector in these areas. There are more than 50 universities in the private sector in Gujarat and accessing education is becoming difficult for the rural masses and even middle classes in the cities. Now, a similar model has recently been evolved to cover government hospitals and other health facilities under the so-called public-private-partnership. 

When it comes to the issue of increasing unemployment he swears by the “enterprising spirit” of the Gujarati, and the Indian youth, and promises to bring about a start-up revolution that will put India at number three in the world in this sector.   

Though all this too is being taken with a pinch of salt, it still appeals to the Gujarati business-inclined middle class in the cities and this suits Modi, and therefore, his party. With government jobs in all sectors getting scarcer by the day, the youth and the Gujaratis in the cities even otherwise do not largely need or look at a government to move on with their daily lives.  

This explains, in brief, why the key cities of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat and Rajkot, and to some extent Bhavnagar, were responsible for the BJP’s toughest victory ever in the last three decades. As many as 44 of the 99 seats won by the BJP – just seven more than the number needed for a simple majority – came from 55 constituencies in the cities. 

As against this, the Congress picked up 30 out of 54 seats in the largely rural and semi-urban agrarian Saurashtra region as well as maintained its tally 0f 16 out of 27 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes (STs) besides three other independents supported by the party. The BJP, significantly, lost four out of 10 Scheduled Caste (SC) seats from the total 13 reserved for them. This also includes Vadgam in North Gujarat, where Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani contested as an Independent supported by the Congress. Along with Mevani, Congress improved its performance among the Dalit voters by more than doubling its seats to seven from three in the 2012 elections.  

This is besides the fact that three out of six Muslim candidates fielded by the opposition party have won, including Imran Khedawala who clinched the Khadia-Jamalpur seat in Ahmedabad city, from the BJP for the first time in the last 42 years. 

With this, the Congress won 55 out of its 80 (including three allies) seats from farmers in Saurashtra __ majority of them Patidars for whom firebrand young leader Hardik Patel took up cudgels __ Adivasis, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Dalits and Muslims. This is besides 18 out of 32 seats from the North Gujarat region minus Ahmedabad district, where the Congress tally rose by two seats and the BJP fell to 15 against six of the opposition party among 21 seats. 

The composition of Patidar seats won by the Congress vis-à-vis 2012 explains the impact of Hardik Patel’s pitched agitation of two and a half years since July 2015, which began when there was no election around for at least another six months up to the local body polls in December that year. Out of an estimated 52 seats with a Patidar population of 20% and more, the Congress won 23 against BJP’s 28 seats and one seat went to an Independent. The number of Congress seats looks smaller than the BJP, but the same figure of the opposition party was 14 in the 2012 elections, whereas the BJP had scored 36 besides two from its rebel outfit Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) that later merged with the ruling dispensation.

It may be recalled that the Gujarat Parivartan Party of former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, who was unseated to get Narendra Modi as the chief minister in October 2001, was also ostensibly an assertion of the Patidar community but seemed to lack the force of conviction and was rejected as an opportunistic alliance of disgruntled politicians within the BJP. 

This was not so in the case of Hardik Patel, whose agitation for reservations to the Patidars under the OBC category was also a caste assertion per se but was built on a solid foundation of real economic issues. The issues of severe unemployment especially of semi-urban and rural youngsters fed up of agrarian distress at home and lacking in the necessary skill sets owing to expensive education to find quality jobs in the cities. They are accompanied by the elder generations, who are increasingly finding agriculture a losing proposition and are not getting remunerative prices commensurate with their input costs, but have nowhere to go.

This is why the elections to local bodies in December 2015 threw up shockers for the BJP. For instance, from 30 district panchayats out 31 in its kitty in 2010, the BJP was reduced to six, while Congress won 24 in the 2015 polls. All, largely because of Hardik Patel’s Patidar agitation but it cannot be independent of the OBCs and the Dalits.

This is also why, quite unusual for the caste dynamics in Gujarat, Alpesh Thakore, speaking for the OBCs and Jignesh Mevani, speaking for the Dalits, were speaking the same language and about the same issues. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi -- he was not formally elevated to that post  during the election campaign -- also spoke of the same issues but expanded them to talk about crony capitalism, the increasing privatisation of education and health services in Gujarat, the siphoning away of farmers’ lands as well as grazing fields for cattle and resources to divert them to select corporate houses.

It needs to be understood that real economic issues that spawned from the skewed politics and policies of Modi as Chief Minister earlier and now the PM, played a key role in the BJP coming close to a near defeat in its prized state. A small victory here may have been a much-needed face saver for Modi, but is not a good omen for his party in the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, besides Karnataka, which are going to the polls in 2018, ahead of the crucial 2019 Lok Sabha battle. 

For the first time in Gujarat, if not the country, Modi was forced to jettison his much-vaunted development plank and speak in the words of communal polarisation during his rallies towards the end of the campaign. He lapped up one remark of a politically insignificant Congress leader like Mani Shanker Aiyar, to turn the tide. Modi also relied upon invoking a dinner thrown by Aiyar, also a retired diplomat, and attended by a former Pakistan minister, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Chief of Army Staff Deepak Kapur, among others, to claim that Pakistan was colluding with the Congress to defeat his party in Gujarat.

The BJP won this election not because the people of Gujarat welcomed his demonetisation and GST enthusiastically, but because Modi took the campaign to a personal and emotional level. He shrewdly played the “son of the soil” card with the people who got carried away at several places.

As practised and tested in Gujarat earlier, he converted every attack on his government’s policies to a collective insult to the people of Gujarat, and asked them, “Do you wish to tolerate an insult to your son of the soil? Can you tolerate it, can you tolerate it if someone calls me a  “neech (lowly) man, it is an insult to entire Gujarat.” It had the desired impact with the fence-sitting voters or those walking out when he addressed public meetings returning to the ballot boxes and voting for him-- yes him, make no mistake, not the BJP.

The Congress could not convert the palpable dissent and anger against the Modi government at the centre, and by proxy in Gujarat, into victory since it could not present a credible chief ministerial face who could lead a population in crises against a possibly hostile government in New Delhi. Even as the party did work to a thematic plan after long in Gujarat, where earlier it was only the candidate fending for himself without a common thread of direction, the Congress needs to wake up early. 

Unlike the BJP, which seems to be perennially in an election mode all through, Congress becomes visible only when there is an election around and looks to find a connect with the people at the eleventh hour. The opposition party in Gujarat is seldom seen taking to the streets with public issues and forcing the government to act on them. This role was largely played by the trinity of Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh.

Rahul Gandhi carried himself with uncanny dexterity during the campaign making the right noises at the right time and also finding a connect among the masses, but he had no way to tackle Modi’s “insider-versus-outsider” trick when he told the crowds that if they had issues it could be sorted out “between ourselves, we don’t need outsiders for it.” 

The Congress has not evolved a strong leadership in the state, indicated by the fact that all three of its senior leaders -- Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhwadia and Siddharth Patel -- aspiring to be the chief minister, lost for the second time in a row.

For the Congress, this is yet another loss in Gujarat as well as one more for Rahul Gandhi. The only, but a big consolation for Gandhi and his party, is that for the first time they put none other than the invincible Modi on the back-foot on his much self-praised policies. In this sense, the Congress has lost but with a renewed hope. Modi has won Gujarat, but with new lessons to learn. 


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