When Deft Caste Politics Stumped BJP’s Hindutva Agenda in Gujarat

Time for the BJP to revise the neo-liberal thrust of its development policies?

4 min read
Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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Fighting tough anti-incumbency sentiments, business slowdown due to the introduction of the GST and caste-based social mobilisation by the three young leaders – Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has just managed to save its face by securing 99 out of 182 seats in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha elections.

The BJP’s victory has been wrought by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charismatic appeal to the people, as were its victories in the 2002, 2007 and 2012 Assembly elections.

Supporters of BJP celebrate their party’s victory in Gujarat state Assembly elections in Gandhinagar.
Supporters of BJP celebrate their party’s victory in Gujarat state Assembly elections in Gandhinagar.
(Photo: AP)
Modi is the BJP’s biggest brand. His persona unifies the party and helps it succeed in rising above the differences of caste and community in Gujarat.

Modi’s charisma also spurned the state-level leadership of the BJP into organising itself and ensure a victory for the party on its own. Likewise, Rahul Gandhi had to shoulder the complete responsibility of the election campaign as the faction-ridden state Congress could not come up with the name of the future chief ministerial candidates.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi arrives for  the winter session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Monday, 18 December.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi arrives for the winter session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Monday, 18 December.
(Photo: PTI)

GST Rate Revision Helped BJP Retain Surat

If the vote share and Assembly segment-wise leads in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections are taken as a point of reference, then the BJP has lost considerable ground.

Its vote share slipped from 60 percent to 49.5 percent, and its proportionate tally slipped from 167 to 99 in the last three and half years. The BJP’s popularity has slipped perilously in the Saurashtra region, which had been its most formidable fortress all along.

However, it has compensated for these losses by increasing its tally in South Gujarat and North Gujarat regions.

The BJP can take consolation in the fact that the much-discussed issue of GST proved inconsequential in determining the voters’ preferences in this election. The party won all but one seat from the city of Surat, where the GST-related discontent was seen to be most acute. This comes as a surprise, as the reduced demand for goods and services in the wake of GST has visibly affected the earnings of small traders.

It seems that the two rounds of revision in the GST rates and administrative rules helped the BJP realign with its traders’ vote bank.

Congress’ Increased Vote Share

While the BJP has no alternative but to present Gujarat’s verdict as a big win (justifying it with reference to its increased vote share), the Congress definitely has a greater reason to cheer.

The party, along with its allies, added 37 seats to its previous tally – that was reduced merely to 43 after 13 of its MLAs crossed over to the BJP a few months ago.

The Congress partly retrieved its lost ground in tribal areas and snatched several Adivasi seats away from the BJP. The Congress gained six lakh more votes in comparison to the previous assembly elections.

The unexpected defeat of senior Congress leaders Shaktisinh Gohil, Siddharth Patel and Arjun Modhwadia will weaken the party’s scrutiny of the BJP government inside the legislature. The Congress need not equate the latest election results with higher approval rates. The BJP has discredited the Congress so much that people have cast their vote for it not because they like the Congress but because they dislike the BJP.

Gujarat’s Development Model Under Scanner

Caste identity in Gujarat has resurfaced with a vengeance in this election. The mainstreaming of caste as a determinant of the election process also means the failure of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology to construct a monolithic Hindu society in Gujarat. Caste seems set to become a determinant of the voting behaviour of citizens in the coming years too, as Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani are unlikely to give up on their agitation agenda.

Numerous visits to temples by the leaders of both the parties, frenetic attempts by the ruling party to rope in the powerful Khodaldham Trust, and a sudden reference to the ‘Ram temple’ at Ayodhya – all of it failed to impress the voters significantly.

It must be noted that the current elections in Gujarat have turned out to be an occasion to re-examine the fairness and objectives of the so-called Gujarat’s model of development.

The agitations led by the three young leaders presented themselves in terms of caste interests, but they have actually articulated the feelings of a large section of the society that feels ‘left out’ of this developmental blitz.

Access to public goods and services like basic education, primary health, roads, transportation, etc, is not available in all areas and to all the citizens due to the increased cost of these services due to their transfer to the private sector. Moreover, the oft-mentioned issue of joblessness points to the failure of the vibrant Gujarat investor summits to generate incomes along with sustainable jobs. It is time the BJP revises the neo-liberal thrust of its development policies and recalibrates them to address the concerns of the middle and low middle classes.

(The writer is a professor of political science at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara. He tweets at @Amit_Dholakia. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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