The focus of the Gujarat elections shifted to Saurashtra, with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi campaigning in the region on Monday, 21 November.
The region accounts for 48 out of Gujarat's 182 seats, second only to Central Gujarat, which has 61 seats. The region has a distinct culture, dialect and political trajectory. For instance, it was one of the regions where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) actually lost ground as Modi's power increased both in the state and nationally. This is unlike say Central or South Gujarat where the BJP's dominance has increased under him.
What makes Saurashtra different politically?
How is it likely to vote in the 2022 Assembly elections?
We'll try and answer these questions in this article.
Under Modi, BJP Grew in Rest of Gujarat but Stagnated in Saurashtra
Prime Minister Narendra Modi actually won his first election in the Saurashtra region, from the Rajkot-2 seat, in 2002.
This was just before the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The bypoll took place along with two other seats – Sayajigunj in Central Gujarat and Mahuva in South – both of which the BJP lost to the Congress, in an embarrassment for Modi early in his tenure.
Then the riots happened and the entire political landscape of Gujarat changed. The BJP gained unprecedented dominance in urban Central Gujarat, which also happened to be the worst affected by the riots.
Modi also shifted his political base from Rajkot in Saurashtra to Maninagar near Ahmedabad. This proved symbolic of the BJP's dominance in central Gujarat and stagnation in Saurashtra.
In the 2002 elections, the BJP gained across Gujarat but its tally fell by 11 seats in Saurashtra compared to 1995. The Congress' tally increased by 10, even though it lost ground in other parts.
The 2007 elections were a near repeat of 2002 in terms of seat share in Saurashtra, with the BJP gaining one and Congress losing one seat.
But in 2012 again, the BJP's tally reduced a bit in Saurashtra and the Congress and others gained. The overall number of seats in Saurashtra also reduced due to delimitation.
The 2017 elections were a disaster for the BJP in the region as it fell below the Congress for the first time in over three decades.
What Makes Saurashtra Different? 3 Factors
Caste vs Communal
A major reason that makes Saurashtra different is the centrality of caste divisions in its political landscape. It has prevented a cross-caste Hindu consolidation that the BJP managed to achieve in other parts of Gujarat.
Such a consolidation didn't even happen in Saurashtra after the 2002 Gujarat riots. In fact, Saurashtra was comparatively less affected by the violence itself.
Patidars, Kshatriyas and different castes grouped under the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) such as Koli, Mer and Vagher dominate the political landscape of Saurashtra.
Due to a high degree of caste domination, violence against Dalits is also high. The Una flogging incident happened in the Gir-Somnath district of Saurashtra.
In elections, both the BJP and Congress try to balance between all the different caste groups in the region. In some seats, both parties end up fielding candidates of the same caste group that is dominant in the area, for instance in Porbandar, the battle has mainly been between Mer community candidates.
A major reason for the BJP's stagnation in Saurashtra is the sidelining of Keshubhai Patel, the tallest Patidar leader from Saurashtra.
Higher Rural Population
Gujarat is among the India's most urbanised states. According to the 2011 census, nearly 43 percent of Gujarat lives in urban areas. But in Saurashtra, except a few urban pockets like Rajkot, Porbandar, Jamnagar and Bhavnagar, much of the region is rural.
Therefore, the region is not conducive to the kind of urban political domination that the BJP perfected under Modi and Amit Shah in the 2000s and 2010s, giving it massive margins in many urban seats.
Agrarian distress is also high, especially among farmers growing cotton, the major crop in the region.
The Patidar agitation to a great extent was also propelled by agrarian woes and lack of jobs for the youth.
Strong Local Leaders
Politics is also highly localised in Saurashtra, with some leaders holding sway irrespective of parties.
Under Modi, the BJP has extensively relied on entrants of strong local leaders from the Congress as well as independent ones to hold on to its influence in Saurashtra.
For instance, Pabubha Virambha Manek has been undefeated in the Dwarka constituency since 1990. He won his first three elections as an Independent, in 2002 under a Congress ticket and moved to the BJP just before the 2007 elections. He has been in the BJP since then.
Another strong local leader who moved from the BJP to the Congress was Patidar strongman Vitthal Radadiya from Dhoraji.
More recently, the BJP brought on board Kunwarji Bavaliya, Congress MLA from Jasdan. At least nine Congress MLAs from Saurashtra resigned and defected to the BJP since 2017.
What Could Happen in This Election?
There are a number of X-factors here.
1. Lack of a Clear 'Caste' Wave
The 2017 election took place under the shadow of the Patidar quota agitation, the counter-agitation by OBCs and the Dalit protests against the Una flogging. All these three movements ended up benefitting the Congress and harming the BJP.
There is no such 'wave' this time and the election could become highly localised. In such a context, candidate selection becomes key.
2. Morbi Tragedy
The Morbi bridge collapse that killed at least 135 people, also took place in this region just before the campaign began.
Though the incident may still be playing in the minds of people, it is not clear whether this has become a decisive issue.
Last time, the BJP had performed poorly in Morbi district but subsequently increased it tally through defections. Morbi MLA Brijesh Merja himself defected from Congress to the BJP and was even made a minister.
It remains to be seen how Congress defectors to the BJP perform. Will they benefit their new party or will it cause more resentment among the BJP loyalists?
Another possible impact of defectors is, it reduces the credibility of Congress candidates as there are fears that some of them may defect if elected.
The Aam Aadmi Party's Chief Ministerial candidate Isudan Gadhvi is contesting from the Khambaliya seat in Devbhoomi Dwarka district of Saurashtra.
AAP has been hopeful of gains in rural Saurashtra, mainly due to the dissatisfaction among the Patidar community. However, it is not clear if AAP will be able to translate the 'buzz' it is getting into votes.