The inability to move mass leaders up the party ranks has been a problem for the Congress
The Gujarat election was supposed to be little more than a victory parade for the BJP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi brashly declared, “I am vikas (development). I am Gujarat.” Before the election, everything seemed to be going the BJP’s way — a hugely popular prime minister from the state and a thumping victory in Uttar Pradesh, not to mention the fact that BJP has ruled Gujarat for 22 years running while never winning less than 115 out of 182 seats. Although a section of supporters will be relieved that the BJP held on to power, the party clearly expected bigger things out of Gujarat (at one point predicting that they will go above 150 seats). Instead, this election unearthed serious chinks in BJP’s armour and returned the lowest seat share for the BJP in Gujarat since 1990. A precocious Hardik Patel morphed what began as a caste movement (the Patidar agitation) into a class movement around the concerns of small traders, the working class, and the rural poor. Yes, the BJP won in Gujarat, but these class concerns promise to be a thorn in the side of the party for the next couple of years.
Using data provided by Hindustan Times (HT) data team as of 2:50pm on December 18, in which the BJP was projected to win 100 seats and the Congress 77 seats, we may characterise some of the trends observed in this election. This is a fairly substantial drop from the 115 seats won in 2012, especially when one considers that the number of seats won by the BJP have been remarkably stable since 1995 — from a maximum of 127 (2002) to a minimum of 115 (2012).
The most obvious implication of the class character of BJP’s opposition is a starker rural-urban divide. The BJP won 50 (89%) out of the 56 constituencies classified as urban by HT in 2012, and it didn’t do much worse this time around, as it was projected to win 46 (82%) of those seats. The rural constituencies saw a much greater shift. In 2012, the BJP won 65 (52%) of the 126 seats classified as urban by HT, but this dropped significantly to 54 (43%) this time around.
But this rural disenchantment was quite uneven by region. As we reported in earlier work, the rural anger did not extend to South Gujarat where the predominant crop, sugarcane, did not face the same drops in market prices as the most prevalent crops, cotton and groundnut, in other regions. Much of the observed shift seems have occurred in the Saurashtra region, where the BJP won 30 (63%) out of the 48 seats in 2012 but only 19 (40%) this time around. Even in North Gujarat, where the Congress had purportedly gained a lot of ground, saw similar results to 2012. In 2012, the BJP won 15 (47%) of 32 seats, and it was projected to win the same number of seats this time around. One hypothesis is that Saurashtra faced severe reduction in market prices for key crops without the proximity to the most major cities such as Ahmedabad, Surat, or Vadodara to anchor BJP support.
While the Congress will take comfort from this election, it has much work to do. Over the past few years, the Congress has largely being reacting to Narendra Modi and the BJP, essentially letting their opponents set the terms of debate. This has robbed the Congress of a cogent party identity, but this election offers a big opportunity. The class anger with the BJP is very real, and it is only likely to grow unless the BJP makes changes in policy. On the other hand, the main thrust of the mobilisation occurred through a leader, Hardik Patel, outside of the Congress. The inability to move mass leaders up the party ranks has been a chronic problem for the Congress. Ultimately, the Congress must answer some questions. Can it develop a cogent party identity to take advantage of the genuine class anger with the BJP? Furthermore, can the Congress develop the kind of mass leaders within the party to mobilise around this class anger?
Things suddenly look a lot more challenging for the BJP. In the next year, the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan will go to the polls. If rural anger was great in Gujarat, this anger is likely to be even greater in those states — where rural distress has been well-documented. A promise of loan waivers did little to bolster the BJP’s standing with farmers, and Prime Minister Modi is almost certainly looking for that next “big bang” reform to win the rural countryside back. As we hit the stretch run to the national election, things have become a little more interesting — 2019 may be back in play for the Congress.
Ashish Ranjan is a Research Fellow at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University. Neelanjan Sircar is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.
The views expressed are personal
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