Defying the conventional trend of anti-incumbency, the BJP is all set to win yet another term in Gujarat, thereby inching closer to the electoral record of the CPI(M), which ruled West Bengal for more than three decades from 1977 to 2011.
The continuous saga of saffron rule, as per the electorates, is attributed to three set of factors: the material delivery, governance and leadership. The first comprise of developmental measures like, 24 hours electricity supply to every household, better road infrastructure, supplying drinking water via Narmada canal in semi arid and arid parts of Saurashtra and Kutch region besides laying down the basic health and prathamik school infrastructure across the state. The central premise of governance is contingent to the popular perception that under the BJP rule the reign of mafia and criminals has effectively come to an end. The later, still goes against the prime opposition party, the Congress, as in the overarching memory, their reign is considered as being mafia friendly wherein in cities like Ahmedabad were hostage to gangsters like Abdul Latif.
Further, while the incumbent party is facing local leadership problem, a fact signified by change of three Chief Ministers since 2014, from Anandiben Patel, Vijay Rupani to the incumbent Bhupendrabhai Patel, the unflinching charisma of PM Narendra Modi remains the final trump card which the saffron party would employ to smoothen the rough terrain.
Hence, the BJP is comfortably placed to score a bigger electoral victory than 2017 as the prime challenger Congress is on a continuous downward spiral. In our field study across all the 182 Assembly Constituencies, conducted from 5th August 2022, to 7th October 2022, an overwhelming section of the traditional Congress voters expressed their colossal loss of faith in the ability of the grand old party to navigate the political maze of Gujarat. It was opined that even after getting 77 out of 182 seats in 2017, the party not only failed to play the role of Opposition, but rather started defecting to the ruling party, thereby blurring the line of incumbent and the anti-incumbent.
This then, has given the new claimant in the state, the AAP, much needed entry point. The new entrant, as expected has employed a combination of material and identitarian pitch, like promising written material guarantees to different sections of societies, a move that has differential resonance in different localities and communities.
Contrary to the perception that the AAP’s buzz is maximum in the business city of Surat which by extension, as the wishful argument goes, has significant traction in Saurashtra region, our study revealed that the city and and the region remains the stronghold of the BJP. Rather, it is the tribal region, the proverbial space from Umargam to Ambaji, contiguous to the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where AAP has acquired maximum resonance. Therein, the promise of 300 free electricity along with the pitch of specific tribal issues like implementation of Forest Rights Act-2006, anti-Dam protests like ‘Par-Tapi -Narmada river-linking project’ besides opposition against proposed Highway projects, have convinced an overwhelming majority of tribals to abandon their preferred party, the Congress and warm up to the aggressive overtures of the AAP.
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Hence, it’s is not the charm of Patidar leaders like Gopal Italia or the urban centres which is giving a foothold to the new claimant, but rather, it is the rural tribal regions and leaders like Arjun Rathva and anti-BJP civil society activists who are silently but diligently working on the ground and constituting a perception advantage among the electorates. The prime victim therein, again, is the Congress party. As far as the much discussed Patidar factor is concerned, our study revealed that the community is solidly consolidated behind the BJP across the regions. Their sentiment is captured in the remark of an elderly Patidar respondent who stated, ‘Patidars have aam, Saam and Daam (number, social traction and money) which destroyed the Congress’ KHAM–an anti-Patidar social coalition in 1980s, comprised of Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim, employed by veteran Congress leader and ex-C.M, Madhav Singh Solanki and then Congress President Zinabhai Darji, who together still hold the record of securing the unbeatable victory margin of 149 seats out of 182 for the Congress.
While the consolidation of the Patidars behind the BJP is one significant factor helping BJP secure a bigger victory margin, there are areas of grave concern afflicting the saffron party. The most prominent among them happen to be the steep inflation which has started pinching the low income strata of the populace whose everyday income fails to meet the expenses, the government’s welfare schemes notwithstanding. Further, the instances of corruption at the lower level coupled with a sense of arrogance informing the Tehsil and district level leadership and bureaucracies is alienating a section of those electorates who have been steadfastly loyal to the incumbent party until PM Modi’s stint as Chief Minister. That section is likely to shift to the AAP in future, if the party succeeds in attaining even a minimal electoral success.
Another change that may seem latent but acquire significance after the election is the entry of AAP, which may not win significant number of seats this time. However, by even a conservative estimate, the party is likely to secure vote percentage in double digit, a important shift in the state which has rejected any experiment of having a third alternative in the past. That scenario would give the new claimant a polemical platform against the BJP to zealously fight for the second spot not only in the Gujarat but ay national level by depicting the Congress as incompetent and incapable in emerging as the anchor of anti-BJP-ism pitch in the coming years.
Hence, while the AAP factor may seem to help the BJP in Gujarat in the short term, but even with limited electoral success, the former has to potential to emerge as an itching factor for the saffron party in the long term. Therein lies the change amid continuity in Gujarat.
Sajjan Kumar is associated with PRACCIS, a Delhi based research institution.