Elections 2019: Why All is Not Well For Modi in Gujarat

2019 is not 2014. There is no visible Modi wave, and local issues seem to have again taken centre-stage in Gujarat.

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Elections
6 min read
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The Indian electorate loves to throw up surprises in almost every election – whether in terms of throwing hung verdicts or giving decisive mandates. Something similar seems to be brewing in the politically significant state of Gujarat.

During the 2014 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party smashed all opposition and rode to victory by sweeping Gujarat’s 26 parliamentary seats. The euphoria of seeing a fellow Gujarati becoming the PM, discarded both local dynamics as well as candidate considerations.

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However, 2019 is not 2014. There is no visible Modi wave, and local issues seem to have again taken centre-stage in Gujarat.

In the last assembly elections held in 2017, a resurgent Congress almost dislodged the BJP in the state by bringing their tally to 99 seats (lowest in two decades), and securing 80+ seats with the support of its ally, the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP). The trio of Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor helped massively in giving shape to the anger on the ground. A lot has however changed since the last assembly elections; right from BJP poaching influential local MLAs, to Alpesh Thakor leaving the party.

Hence, the media and election enthusiasts believed that the Congress has lost the momentum in the state. However, ground reports are painting a completely different picture.

No More A Cakewalk

Barring the watershed election of 2014, Congress has maintained a steady seat share, even during the BJP’s peak period and when the Modi-Shah duo controlled the state. For example, between 1996-2014, it always secured seats between 10-12, except during 1998-99 when they won only 6-7 seats. The fact that the BJP was considered an urban-centric party was most evident in Gujarat, as Congress bastions were mainly in rural and tribal-dominated areas, whereas BJP scored well in all urban constituencies. In every election before 2014, more than a dozen seats were won/lost in extreme narrow margins between the two parties.

Hence, it’s no surprise that the traditional vote banks of the Congress are now returning to them in their traditional strongholds.

Besides, the party that’s always been in the news for their leaders’ desertions has also been receiving support from unexpected quarters. Case in point being the support it received from the state’s second largest cooperative dairy, the Mehsana District Co-operative Milk Producers’ Union Ltd, popularly known as the Dudhsagar Dairy. The cooperative claims to have its members spread across districts like Gandhinagar, Patan and Mehsana – comprising 100 societies and over 6 lakh milk producers.

The BJP is appearing weak, particularly in North Gujarat and Saurashtra. Over 40 percent of the state’s OBC population is spread across these two regions.

In Saurashtra region, where Koli Patels are in huge numbers, cotton and ground nut farmers are agitating, and Congress seems to be capitalising on their anger, particularly in Surendranagar and Amreli districts. The NYAY scheme, which promises Rs 72, 000 each year, is also proving to be a good sell for the party in rural belts.

Eyes On The Tribal Vote Bank

Often overlooked by media and political analysts, tribals in Gujarat hold considerable clout in the state’s politics. With 27 assembly seats and 4 Lok Sabha seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, and them accounting for roughly 15 percent of the state population, they form a significant voters bloc. The four parliamentary seats reserved for the ST are Bardoli, Dahod, Chhota Udaipur and Valsad. Other constituencies with a significant tribal population include Bharuch, Sabarkantha, Banaskantha and Panchmahal. Many of these being traditional Congress strongholds which it lost in the 2014 Modi wave that swept the country. In 2009, Congress had won Bardoli, Valsad and Dahod.

However, things changed rapidly, merely three years later during the 2017 assembly elections, where Congress bounced back in tribal-dominated regions. So much so that it won 15 out of 27 assembly segments, while BJP had to be content with only 9.

Congress ally BTP won two seats as well. The major issues facing the tribal communities continue to be – forest land rights, education, healthcare, irrigation and most importantly, employment. Rough estimates suggest that more than one lakh tribals are forced to migrate for eights months every year to cities, to work at construction sites.

Promising Seats for the Congress

This may come as a surprise to many, but as per current trends and ground reports, the Congress has a decisive edge in Anand, Amreli, Patan, Bardoli, Jungadh, Surendranagar, Chhota Udaipur and Banaskantha. Each parliamentary constituency is reflecting its own local dynamics. For example, in Anand, former PCC President, Bharatsinh Solanki is fighting the elections, which he won in 2009. During the 2014 election, he lost by a margin of less than 65k votes and has been working on the ground ever since.

The Congress holds five of the eight assembly seats in Anand. Amongst the erstwhile Congress bastions, it currently holds five out of seven assembly seats in Banaskantha, and four out of seven assembly seats in Sabarkantha.

During the 2017 assembly elections, the Saurashtra-Kutch region contributed significantly to Congress’ tally. It won eight out of the nine assembly seats in Junagadh and Gir-Somnath districts of Saurashtra. This is also, primarily because the ruling party has been battling the perception of failing to deliver during the 2016 floods. Paresh Dhanani, Leader of the Opposition in Gujarat assembly, is fighting from Amreli where the Congress had won all the five assembly seats in 2017. Similarly in Surendranagar, a seat dominated by the Koli community, the Congress had bagged five out of six assembly seats in the last election.

Seats Witnessing Close Fights

There are many parliamentary constituencies in Gujarat that are witnessing a close battle. These seats are: Jamnagar, Dahod, Porbandar, Mehsana, Sabarkantha, Bharuch and Navsari. There are several factors that are helping Congress put up a tough fight in Modi-Shah’s backyard. Despite Alpesh Thakor’s exit, the Thakore Sena continues to support Congress.

The Koli and Aheer communities’ votes seem to be getting attracted to them. Mehsana, a Patidar stronghold witnessed a strong fight post the recent attack on Hardik Patel in Surendranagar. While BJP managed to poach the Congress MLA from Unjha, ie, Asha Patel, local BJP cadres in Mehsana vehemently oppose the turncoat. 

So much so that even in bypolls held in Unjha on 23 April, it's highly unlikely that Patel will get re-elected on a BJP ticket. Such infighting within the BJP is bound to have an effect on the Mehsana Lok Sabha seat.

In Bharuch, heavyweight tribal leader Chhotubhai Vasava of the BTP may score a victory this time against veteran BJP leader Mansukh Vasava, who has been a four-time MP from the seat. In South Gujarat, both Akhil Bharatiya Koli Samaj (6 lakh voters) and North Indian Koli Samaj (20 lakh voters) announced their support for the Congress. The Koli community had appealed to all parties to nominate Koli candidates in Navsari, but only Congress fielded a Koli, Dharmesh Patel. It’s interesting to note that during the 2014 elections, BJP’s sitting MP CR Patil won by over 5 lakh votes with the support of the Koli community.

Drop in Voter Turnout May Harm BJP

Like all other elections, the 2019 elections too will witness a sharp division in terms of rural-urban seats and on caste arithmetic. Gujarat polled around 60.48 percent voter turnout till 7 PM in this election, as compared to a turnout of over 63 percent in 2014.

Given Gujarat’s past history of fiddling with seats in extremely narrow margins, even a marginal drop in voter turnout is bad news for the ruling BJP.

They’ve been anyway facing a lot of negative reactions in many areas due to many leaders threatening action against those who vote against the party, and attempting to intimidate voters by shooing them away from voting. In many areas such as Jamnagar, Junagadh and Bhavnagar, many incidences of attacks on Opposition candidates were reported.

All in all, while Gujarat remains largely under-reported this election season; there isn’t, going to be any sweep by the ruling party unlike 2014. By conservative estimates, Congress should be able to win minimum six seats in the state and maximum twelve in a closely fought election.

(Bishal Paul is an author, screenwriter, filmmaker and entrepreneur. He tweets @BuiSpeaks. The views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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