What Does The Gujarat Story Signal For The Next State Elections And 2019?

Posted by Bhargav Oza in Politics, Staff Picks
December 26, 2017

There are less than two years to go before the 2019 general elections take place. Several states go to the polls before that as well. The key trends which have come from how Gujarat’s janata (population) has voted, reveal many things about the BJP and the opposition. I try to analyse the Gujarat story and how it rings the bell for 2019.

The euphoric Gujarat elections concluded on December 14 and the results were announced on December 18. Many were glued to their TV screens and followed minute-by-minute updates, desperate to see which way the winds would blow, and more importantly, in whose favour. There was one simple question on everyone’s minds. Was this going to only be an extension of BJP’s ‘vikas rath yatra’? The way it had marched unfettering for the past two decades. Or was the recent discontent strong enough to overturn the same chariot? What got confirmed on the evening of December 18 was that the chariot had certainly been dented, if not dismantled. The voters gave BJP 99 seats, 16 less than their 2012 tally, whereas Congress won 77, sixteen more than their previous tally. While it took a long time for the opposition to reduce the BJP to two digits in a 182-seat state assembly, it was just not enough to deprive BJP of office in Gujarat.

Riding on Modi’s popularity and even after anti-incumbency of five straight terms, BJP was able to somehow retain power. Congress, on the other hand, has reasons to cheer with their best ever tally since 1985. It has sent out the message that it is serious in its revival project by letting Rahul Gandhi take a lead in the party affairs. However, it has equally good reasons to worry as to what led to the loss of its heavyweight leaders and missing out on the golden opportunity to form a government in Modi’s home-turf, although narrowly.

Further, this election revealed the deviation in party’s core ideology, which has always boasted of secular credentials; and its on-ground campaigning that saw dilly-dalliance with soft Hindutva through embracing janeu politics and strategically distancing itself from minorities. But if this election is to be seen as calling the cat for 2019, it is as much a win-win situation for both, as it is a lose-lose one.

One can call the Gujarat results as too early or too late to affect the public opinion before 2019: too early, because the discontent is just beginning to translate into electoral numbers and several key states are yet to go for polls which can swing public opinion either way before 2019; but too late since BJP is now already governing in 19 odd states, either on itself or through coalitions, and therefore knows the public pulse better than opposition in at least the states in which it has power. Irrespective of the 2019 outcome, here are some noticeable trends from Gujarat results, that show 2019 could be a close fight, debunking the narrative of BJP’s invincibility that was taken for granted after they swept in UP and Uttrakhand earlier this year.

Rural-Urban Split

The results of Gujarat elections, showed a clear rural-urban split with BJP sweeping 43 of 55 urban seats including major cities like Ahmedabad, Baroda, Rajkot and Surat; whereas Congress swept 71 of the 127 rural seats with major gains in Saurashtra. The rural-urban split shows that the agrarian distress, twin economic jolts of demonetisation and GST has severely fractured the backbone of the rural poor, who are now much more sceptical and vocal against BJP’s economic policies (irrespective of whether it electorally favours BJP or not). While the urban middle class remains completely alienated from the same economic disasters and largely votes on PM’s personal charisma. Even the fact that BJP released its manifesto just before the day of polling, suggests that the infamous vikas model rhetoric had to make a very late and unfortunate appearance the day before polling.

The rural-urban contradiction in Gujarat is largely indicative of the pulse of the country; since economic unrest, unemployment and an agrarian crisis is as much the story of the country, as it is of Gujarat. This glaring contradiction may either see agrarian focused reforms in the upcoming budget or it can lead to massive peasant protests – both political and apolitical – across the country.

Emergence Of Young Leadership And Non-Electoral Alliances

The mainstream media would like to sell the perception that Congress won solely based on caste politics, amplified by three firebrand leaders: Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani; voicing unrest amongst the Patidars, OBCs and Dalits. All three of them, in their campaigning, confessed to having contradictions but were willing to forge an alliance to end BJP’s reign in Gujarat.

However, their victory signals questions beyond immediate community issues: the questions of rampant unemployment amongst youth, peasant distress and the ‘anti-poor’ attitude of the BJP at the State and the Centre. In electoral terms, the three leaders first forming a non-electoral alliance between themselves and then with Congress, rewarded the Congress-led opposition through translation into votes. But this went only to a certain extent as the Patidar community, from the beginning, remained internally split. Here again, the urban middle-class Patels who are largely mercantile as a community, favoured BJP; as against the rural Patels, largely agrarian, voted for Congress.

If the rural-urban issues are similar, can the rural-urban future electoral outcomes be similar? Recent developments have seen huge peasant protests racking up in different parts, across caste and gender lines, tied with issues of joblessness and GST, despite the blissful mainstream media under-reporting. One such instance was the ‘Mahapadev’, a three-day protest on Parliament Street that concluded on November 11, and which was staged by lakhs of workers, supported by 10 central trade unions and several independent federations, and backed with many anganwadi workers, small-time traders, public sector employees and students who passionately demonstrated their demands. This is one clear space where the opposition, through the strategic forging of electoral and non-electoral alliances with civil society leadership, can cause a dent to the BJP. The Gujarat election verdict could not show this in no more clearer terms.

Unpacking The Modi-Fied Myth

Gujarat election results are the perhaps the third opportunity the opposition has got to forge pragmatic alliances, and perhaps the last opportunity after it missed the bus when BJP faced a near rout in Delhi’s state elections and in Bihar where it had a dismal show. These smaller and incremental victories suggest a morale boost for Congress and opposition while puncturing the ‘Modi-wave’ narrative, which the BJP campaigners sold hard and also successfully in 2014 and several states like Maharashtra, UP and Uttrakhand that went to polls after 2014. The Gujarat story, in some ways, reveals the hollowness of the Modi-centred narrative. The writing on the wall cannot be clearer after Gujarat. The voter is willing to vote rationally and practically on the issues related to economic policies.

The Gujarat election results provide the much-needed confidence to the opposition that if the Modi-Shah duo can be made vulnerable in its own fiefdom, it can be made elsewhere too. There are still a good number of important states that go for polling before 2019 like Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Karnataka and which can very well set (or deflect) the tone for 2019. The Gujarat results, however, clearly indicated that voters can detach Gujarat’s asmita and Mod. The myth has been left out in the cold, if not completely altered.


Image source: Siddharaj Solanki/Hindustan Times via Getty Images, Siddharaj Solanki/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The writer is an independent researcher and Urban Fellow with Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. The views and opinions expressed are solely personal.