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The Gujarat Vote Share Trend Conundrum

Darshan Desai (darshan207@gmail.com) is editor, Development News Network, Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

The Bharatiya Janata Party may seem invincible in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat. However, the staggering numbers in terms of the party's vote share and seats in the state assembly tell a very different tale. Right from the first time it came to power on its own in 1995, till now, this article chronicles the BJP's eventful journey in Gujarat.

It was around October 2000 when Haren Pandya, a cabinet minister in the Keshubhai Patel government in Gujarat, told this writer in an interview that it was not so much the stunning debacle of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the just-concluded elections to local self-government bodies that shocked him and his party. What surprised them more was that they just did not know this was coming. With the Congress pocketing 21 out of 23 district panchayats for which elections were held in September 2000, leaving two to the BJP, it was a complete reversal of the status pre-1995. Winning 2,298 taluka panchayat seats against the BJP’s 1,276 in 210 talukas of 24 districts, the Congress had more taluka panchayat seats than the BJP did in 22 districts. Here, too, there was a role reversal.

Even in the BJP’s traditional urban fiefdom, the party lost control of two prestigious municipal corporations of Ahmedabad and Rajkot after ruling for 13 years and 24 years, respectively, though it won 227 seats, and the Congress, 193, in all the six municipal corporations. Some detailed number crunching revealed more eye-opening facts for the ruling party, for instance, the BJP, which controlled the Surat Municipal Corporation with 98 out of 99 seats—the 99th seat having been won by a BJP rebel—was reduced to 54 seats in 2000 though it returned to power.

Fifteen years down the line, in December 2015, the BJP, under Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, similarly lost most of the district panchayats, a majority of taluka panchayats, and several municipalities. Once again, the results shocked the party, more so for they did not know this was coming. There was drastic change in the number of taluka and district panchayats controlled by the BJP and the Congress from 2010 to 2015. While the BJP’s control nosedived, the Congress gained substantial control. Similarly, the BJP’s vote share in the district and taluka panchayats saw a decrease from 2010 to 2015, while that of the Congress increased (Table 1).

Same as in 2000, the BJP continued to retain its hold over the semi-urban and urban regions, winning 34 out of 56 municipalities and retaining all the six municipal corporations to which elections were held out of the total eight in the state, and same as then, the victories here too were half-truths. For instance, the Congress put up a tough fight in the Rajkot corporation. With a tally of 34, it managed to scare the BJP, which won 38 seats in the 72-member corporation. In 2010, the BJP had won 49 and the Congress won 10 in a then 59-member corporation. Similarly in Ahmedabad, the BJP’s tally came down from 154 in 2010 to 142 in 2015. The vote shares in the victor’s urban fiefdoms too have a story to tell. While the BJP retained control over the 56 municipalities and the six municipal corporations, the vote share trend from 2010 to 2015 moved in favour of the Congress (Table 2).

The election results portrayed an urban–rural divide almost equally between the BJP and the Congress.

The reason they were not aware of what was in store for the party, both in 2000 as well as in 2015, is the same. Inebriated in unbridled power with an opposition party in deep slumber, the BJP leadership had never had its ear to the ground.

Disconnect with Grass Roots

In 2015, the Anandiben Patel-led BJP went to the hustings against the backdrop of the party’s unprecedented 26-of-26 Lok Sabha triumph in 2014, which sent the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi to Delhi. Besides the Lok Sabha win, all the previous assembly and local body elections in the state under Modi saw the BJP dancing all the way to victory. There was an air of nonchalance in the party leadership given the strong platform left for them by Modi, while the only fact that had them nervous was the Patidar agitation, which started in July 2015, for reservations under the Other Backward Class (OBC) quota.

The very community, Patels or Patidars, on whose shoulders the BJP rode piggyback through the decades was asking for its share in the spoils of power. This left the government in a quandary, since facilitating the Patels, who form around 14% of the state’s population, would mean cutting into 27% of the OBC quota, 7% of Scheduled Castes (SCs) quota and 15% of the Scheduled Tribes (STs) quota. With a 50% cap on reservations imposed by the Supreme Court, any more quotas would eat into the share of others. Ruffling the OBCs, SCs and STs in Gujarat would be committing political hara-kiri since they are an integral part of the Congress’s KHAM caste combination of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims, who constitute 75% of the state’s population. With the Patel agitation, a counter-consolidation of these communities has already taken place under the banner of OBC, SC, and ST (OSS) Ekta Manch.

Unable to come up with a proper response to the Patidar storm, the Anandiben Patel government made the mistake of unleashing the police force on the agitators after a five lakh-strong rally was addressed by young Patel leader Hardik Patel in August 2015 in Ahmedabad, months ahead of the local body elections in November and December. As many as 10 people were killed, while an aggressive police force lodged over 450 first information reports (FIRs) against nearly 1,500 agitating Patels between August 25 and August 28. After this, the leaders of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, led by Hardik Patel, intensified the agitation that had already spread across the state. The government went a step further and jailed Hardik Patel and other community leaders on charges of sedition, among others. This cost the BJP heavily in the local body elections where Patels reportedly voted aggressively against the ruling party, especially in the Saurashtra and North Gujarat regions.

While it has been 10 months of 22-year-old Hardik Patel languishing in jail, the government last month announced a 10% reservation for economically weaker sections with an annual income of ₹6 lakh or less among the higher castes, including Patels. Albeit, implementation of this is fraught with legal hurdles since there is a 50% cap on reservations.

With the setting in which the party ruled Gujarat since 1998—romping home to power a second time with 117 seats in a state assembly of 182, despite its first 121-seat victory of 1995 having been badly squandered away by a split in the party—its leaders construed there was no challenge ahead since the voters had so faithfully entrusted them with a veritable power of attorney.

It is against this backdrop that the ruling BJP faced the first election to the local bodies in 2000 and the results dealt them a heavy blow from the grass roots, the rural hinterlands, while the party’s urban strongholds managed to hold on with difficulty. The results reflected that the party was increasingly getting detached from the ground, in a state of unchallenged inebriation and, therefore, arrogance. This is exactly what Haren Pandya meant. (He was mysteriously assassinated three years later; nobody knows by whom and for what.) The party’s disconnect with the grass roots in 2000 could also be understood from the fact that when this writer asked them for the results of the local body elections, a party functionary said, “We may not have it, this is 2016 now, why do you want the 2000 information?” The party office had not kept any records. Checking with the Congress was out of the question; it may not have even the 2015 results handy.

Keshubhai Patel’s Regime

It was in March 1995 that the first BJP government took root in Gujarat, with 121 seats against the Congress’s 45, riding on a palpable anti-incumbency wave against the previous Congress government, as well as on the lurking Hindutva sentiment that originated three years earlier, in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. When Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao dismissed BJP governments in some states, the BJP pulled out from a coalition government it ran since 1990 with the Janata Dal–Gujarat (JD–G) of Chimanbhai Patel. Later, the opportunistic JD–G merged with the Congress, with Chimanbhai continuing as the chief minister.

After Chimanbhai’s death in 1994, the baton was passed on to Chhabildas Mehta. It did not work and the BJP romped home with veteran leader and Patidar community patriarch Keshubhai Patel being made the chief minister of a popularly elected government. A revolt in the party just over six months later led to the fall of the government, though the dispensation later formed by the party’s rebels with Congress’s external support did not last long, forcing an election in the state in 1998. The sympathy factor with the then Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel for being toppled and the continuation of the pre-1995 anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress gave Keshubhai and the BJP a second victory in 1998.

This went to their head. Since he assumed the chief ministership the second time, Keshubhai returned with a vengeance for the 1995 revolt and rode roughshod over Sangh Parivar outfits like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishva Hindu Parishad and even the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. None of them worked for the party in the 2000 local body elections, and it had to pay a very heavy price for this. Keshubhai Patel had also ensured that a key poll strategist and the then state party general secretary Narendra Modi was thrown out of Gujarat, to Delhi, since he held Modi responsible for the 1995 revolt against him by party strongman Shankersinh Vaghela. A suggestion was made to request the central leadership to ask Modi to return temporarily to run the election machinery, but Keshubhai Patel thwarted it. After the 2000 poll debacle, the requests turned into demands from the party rank and file to bring Modi back to Gujarat. This, albeit, did not materialise.

The other important reason for the 2000 poll debacle was the Keshubhai Patel government’s inept handling of five natural calamities: two cyclones, a series of tremors in the coastal regions around Bhavnagar, and two severe droughts. Just like the chorus for Anandiben Patel’s head after the party’s debacle in the local body elections in December 2015, there was a more vocal clamour for replacing Keshubhai Patel following the similar electoral disaster in October 2000.

The situation was only to worsen for the party and the Keshubhai Patel regime after the massive earthquake on 26 January 2001, which shook the entire state. The government fell miserably short in handling the scale of the crisis when thousands of people were killed and lakhs of houses were reduced to rubble.

Enter Modi

With a high decibel media tirade and public outcry against the government, the party finally gave in and sacked Keshubhai to bring Narendra Modi back to Gujarat on 7 October 2001. In a first, a pracharak of the RSS had assumed the charge of chief minister of the state. But, despite a new chief minister in place, the anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP government had sustained and this was reflected in the by-elections for three assembly seats of Sayajiganj (an-out-and out urban area), Mahuva in South Gujarat (an Adivasi reserved seat) and Rajkot–II (contested in by Narendra Modi).

The BJP lost both Sayajiganj and Mahuva, while the winning margin in Rajkot–II came down to half of what the incumbent Vajubhai Vala had got, despite the sitting chief minister contesting from there. Vala had vacated the seat for Modi after cabinet minister Haren Pandya refused to make way for Modi in his constituency, Ellis Bridge in Ahmedabad, which was Modi’s first choice. Smarting under this “insult,” Modi ensured Pandya was not given a ticket to contest from the constituency in the December 2002 elections. Three months after this, in March 2003, Pandya was assassinated.

The uninspiring February 2002 by-election results came only three days ahead of the Godhra and post-Godhra communal holocaust in Gujarat that left 1,100 people dead, but paved the way for Modi and the BJP to bounce back to invincible political reckoning riding on the Hindutva rhetoric. The party returned to power in December 2002 with an enviable victory, bagging 127 seats in an assembly of 182 seats, while the Congress managed 51. Amidst a Hindutva wave then, the BJP’s vote share jumped to a whopping 49.85%, from 42.45% when the party formed the government for the first time in Gujarat in 1995, and to 44.81% in 1998 when the assembly and the Lok Sabha elections were held together. If the BJP’s vote share skyrocketed in the 2002 polls, the Congress’s vote share too increased to 39.45% in a communally polarised atmosphere.

After 2002, the BJP’s vote share and the number of seats it has in the state assembly have been steadily falling, while the difference in the vote shares between the BJP and the Congress has been shrinking simultaneously (Table 3).

However, when the people of Gujarat voted to make Modi the Prime Minister during the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the BJP won all the 26 seats and its vote share rose (Table 4).

On a Downhill Trip

Between 2000 and 2015, as reflected by the results of the local body elections of both the years, the BJP has always been on a downhill trip in Gujarat, except when it seeks votes from a communally divided platform as in 2002 and for a high-stakes election like in 2014. For the BJP voter in Gujarat, it is Narendra Modi first and then the party, as if both are separate entities. With Modi not around, there has been a revival of internal wrangling in the BJP with what has come to be identified as the Amit Shah group lording over the party organisation as well as the government run by his bitter rival Anandiben Patel. The striking example of this was the announcement of 10% reservation for economically weaker sections, which was neither made by the chief minister nor was it made from the state secretariat.

The announcement was made by newly appointed state BJP president, Vijay Rupani, from the party headquarters, Kamalam, near Gandhinagar, following a meeting presided over by the national BJP president. Sitting meekly besides him, the chief minister only looked on. Ironically, Rupani is a minister under Anandiben Patel. Believed to be in the Amit Shah camp, Rupani was appointed the state BJP chief at the cost of several senior leaders and former ministers being ignored, though, compared to them, he has no real experience of chalking out a statewide election strategy.

Citing the government’s inept handling of the Patidar agitation that has estranged the community critical to the party for several decades, the supporters of Amit Shah—himself a chief ministerial aspirant—have been clamouring for Anandiben Patel’s head. They want her to be out at least a year before the December 2017 elections. But, true to his style, Modi has kept the cards close to his chest given that both Anandiben Patel and Shah owe allegiance to him and are what they are thanks to Modi.

There is clear evidence in any case that the public mood in Gujarat is palpably against the Anandiben Patel government. The Patels, the key community to which the chief minister and several top ministers belong, have for the first time in the state’s political history turned against the BJP as was shown in the results of the local body elections in December 2015. The stress in the agricultural sector—thanks to the government’s apathy towards the farmers through its policy of crony capitalism, ushered in by Modi and continued thereafter—is a key reason for the Patidar agitation. This is also why the BJP fared miserably in the rural hinterlands in the local body elections. This is besides the stagnation in Gujarat’s traditional small-scale and medium-scale industrial sector, on which the state’s famed entrepreneur depends heavily.

Still, the biggest advantage that the BJP has ahead of the 2017 elections is the opposition, the Congress, which is in a state of disarray. The party’s good showing in the recent elections is largely by default of an anti-BJP vote, while on its own the Congress has as many factions as it has leaders; every leader is a chief ministerial candidate. The party has not been able to put together a single public movement against the government or raise any issue of public import. For instance, two movements in Saurashtra and north Gujarat against allocation of agricultural lands to the corporate sector were led by farmer organisations and the Congress only made vain attempts to join them much later. The only thing that the party does with religious regularity is to issue press releases criticising the government.

In all, though the BJP seems to be getting weaker in Gujarat, as was reflected in its deteriorating vote share and the number of seats, it still is not enough to make way for the Congress to come to power. The BJP has Modi, whose forays into Gujarat during crunch situations ahead of the 2017 assembly elections can help turn the tide in the party’s favour, while the Congress opposition has nobody within the state as well as outside.

 

 

(Image on social media courtesy Umang.patel, from Wikimedia Commons) 

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