Gujarat: An Unexpected Semi-Final For 2019

Now that the results of the most awaited polls are out, everyone is busy with analyzing their predictions. Some to support their original ones and the remaining thinking about where they went wrong. But what does a millennial like me, who didn’t (actually couldn’t) predict anything do? I am neither a political pundit nor a do I have the knowledge from witnessing previous elections. But I sure have an opinion about what had happened. Afterall, who doesn’t? And this is my take on the polls.

Being born and brought up in this great country, I think of all things this country has to offer. Of this, two things have a very special place in our life – religion and politics.

Every Indian would either love them or hate them, for one or the other reason. But they just can’t ignore them. That’s how interrelated and important these are these in our daily life.

And Gujarat. The land of rapid economic growth. The land of opportunities. The religious state. The developed state. Our PM Modi’s prized possession, a wonderful narrative, and powerful weapon. The Bhartiya Janta Party’s most precious and priceless jewel in its crown. An unconquerable state for Congress. I think there is no state in our country, that explains better, the interesting relationship between religion and politics that exists in our great nation.

I think deep down, the principal driving force behind the results of not just this but every other election of this Hindu majority state is ‘Religion’ and not EVMs or the Gujarat model of development. It was quite evident if one would analyze the results of last few assembly elections. The vote share of the saffron party in this religious state over the years should validate of my statement.

The infamous Godhra train incident (2002) and the riots that followed aftermath had led to inter-communal violence known as ‘2002 Gujarat Riots’. The failure to act by the government, is blamed as the reason behind the loss of hundreds of lives. Mr Modi who was the head of the State Government then, is accused of initiating and condoning the violence. Despite all such allegations, accusations and even travel ban by UK, USA and many European countries, he had led the BJP to win the highest vote share (49.85) in decades by winning an absolute majority (127 of the 182 seats) in the elections, that were held just a few months later that incident.

This shows that one simply can’t ignore the factor of the high importance and influence religion enjoys in this state (especially the Hindu voters’ stance with regardless of their caste identity). Maybe Mr Rahul Gandhi too had noticed and realized its importance, which lead him to a series of temple visits during the campaign and also to enunciate his Hindu-Brahmin status with his sacred thread.

Congress, to complement to their newly built so-called Soft Hindutva stance, they didn’t even bother raising BJP’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. It all seemed and felt like right out of the playbook for the electorate and garnered more criticism than the expected support.

The Congress’s leadership with no power to rule in the state for more than the past 20 years and consecutive electoral losses, maybe realized, that it’s secular stand isn’t helping them, especially in this Hindu majority state. With that, they let go (maybe just for the Gujarat elections) one of the primary and supporting pillars of INC – secularism. And so, lost a significant number of Muslim votes (Muslims constitute 9.67% of the Gujarat electorate), especially from the younger generation for whom comparatively, employment is a bigger problem than religious freedom. In the much projected tight race in this election, a few hundred votes contribute a lot to some constituencies.

While Mr Gandhi was busy trying to please the electorate with his Soft-Hindutva agenda, senior members of his party have become easy targets and sources for the BJP. It would not be an exaggeration, even if BJP had to thank both Mr Kapil Sibal and Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar, for their collective contribution to a significant part of the BJP’s victory.

Mr Sibal, while arguing the famous Ayodhya case in SC (during the election time) has sought to defer the case to after the 2019 national election. With that, he had not only earned a sharp reprimand from the Chief Justice, but also helped the BJP question the Congress stance over the most sensitive issue of this century – Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi. This whole thing had made Congress lose the momentum that Mr Gandhi had tried to build.

Coming to Mr Aiyar, the BJP owes a lot more to him than Mr Sibal for all the favours he had done at the most critical times. By reminding the people of Mr Modi’s humble beginnings with his ‘Chaiwala’ jibe in 2014 to helping Mr Modi project ‘elitist mentality’ of Congress at public rallies with the most controversial remark of his lifetime, ‘Neech Aadmi – low-born individual’ remark against Mr Modi, his antics eventually got him suspended by his own party. Even though Mr Gandhi quickly berated those remarks and acted against him, but it was too late as the BJP had already got hold of that great opportunity it was eagerly waiting for. And not to forget the controversy that erupted in the leading days of the election, over the meeting at Aiyar’s residence wherein Pakistani diplomats and former PM Manmohan Singh were present.

I personally think and believe that the Congress support for the OBC reservation to Patidars had backfired and contributed significantly to the loss of electoral victory. The traditional OBCs occupy the lion’s share of Gujarat population (40%) in contrast to Patidars (12%).

The Congress reached a deal with the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti- PAAS (The front face and outfit for Patidar reservation agitation), but it did not reveal the details and the formula worked out between them. The uncertainties and questions about the legal ramifications and hurdles of judicial muster to the proposed reservations weren’t explicitly addressed to the Patidar community.

Despite these promises, a considerable part of the old guard of Patidar community had still gone with their default choice of the BJP. This is quite evident from BJP clean sweeping Surat which is considered as the epicentre of Patel agitation. By openly supporting and agreeing to provide OBC reservation (even though separate) for Patels, the Congress had lost the confidence of kingmaking OBC voters other than Kshatriyas (who are traditional Congress base), who felt that their fair share of reservations is being taken away (All Other Backward Classes-OBCs have collective reservation percentage at central level).

But the interesting take away from the results is the vote share, which both BJP and Congress had improved since the 2012 elections; BJP from 47.85% to 49.05% and Congress from 38.93% to 41.44%.

In contrast, the BJP won 60.11% and the Congress 33.45% in the 2014 general elections. It shows the Congress gaining more than the BJP since the last two elections. The gap has been reduced considerably; it used to be around 30%, now it is around 7%. With Congress actually giving BJP a tough challenge especially in rural areas. The regions where the real problems like proper facilities for agriculture and rural employment hadn’t been addressed effectively by the BJP in the past terms.

The Congress shouldn’t forget that a significant chunk of its 41% vote share came from the support of Mr Hardik Patel, Mr Jignesh Mevani, and Mr Alpesh Thakor. Even their combined advantage wasn’t enough to beat BJP. Congress must think and realize it needs more than the support of just these three. It should concentrate on building the lost party from ground level.

It needs the force of dedicated party workers of the present generation now, more than ever to bring the party back to its lost glory. They should concentrate the limited resources of time (before the general elections and time available in parliament sessions) to fight for strong and real causes and to take the government’s failure to the people more effectively and make an impact in the minds of the electorate that were filled with corruption tainted UPA (2004-2014).

The Congress should have realized by now a part of the BJP’s success can be attributed to lack of clear agenda and manifesto for the development that would be different and effective than Mr Modi’s and the planned strategy to address key issues struggling the state. I agree that neither did the BJP had clear points about issues, but they smartly and successfully steered off the narrative towards the much-hyped development, Hindutva, the Neech remark, Pakistan, Gujarat pride and the iconic Modi’s charisma.

Sure it wasn’t a great start for Mr Gandhi as the president of the Grand Old Party, but it should also be noted that it isn’t even a bad one (compared to previous results), to begin with. If he can’t rebuild, restructure and fight harder with real issues and keep the old guard to the backstage and make way for new leaders, the elections of next year in Karnataka, MP, Rajasthan, and Northeast will show him the worse and ultimately making him face the worst defeat he could ask for, in 2019 general elections.

And for the BJP, yes, the ‘Modi factor’ is there. But it wasn’t as effective as it was in 2014 general elections and the BJP should realize and get hold of that reality. And no, it not clearly a vote for development like your leaders portrays it as to be. It’s merely a vote based on lack of strong opposition and viable alternative that led to BJP’s victory and of course the support of strongly deeprooted religious votes of the Hindu state.

Despite what you keep promoting as the flagship development agenda of your government in the state, the ground realities of unemployment, inflation, underdevelopment in rural, low GDP growth rate and low Human Development Index tell a completely different story. Your leaders and supporters hardline Hindutva stance and their Anti-Muslim rhetoric combined with your government’s lack of concern and action against the elements that take the law into their hands should be strictly addressed with an iron fist before you get ready for the 2019 General elections. Remember, not all states can be worked with the Gujarat style of a narrative, and not all states have such weak opposition.

The newly formed government needs to concentrate on not just the urban development but more of inclusive development agenda. You can’t just ignore and sideline the effectiveness Patidar agitation. It brought the PM of the country to the election ground. It forced not only him, but also his cabinet ministers to take the series of rallies in his home state in the fight for victory. The inclusive development of rural population and people of all communities and addressing grass root problems are of prime importance for the present government.

The long cherished BJP’s dream of ‘Congress-Mukt India’ isn’t going to be easy. But with more care to not repeat the mistakes of the past like improper and poorly planned policy implementation and hurting the economy, addressing the crucial problems like unemployment and NPAs and taking control of the possible arrogance and overconfidence that would arise from the series of electoral victories and control of 19 of the 29 states, it’s definitely achievable.

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