In Gujarat elections, a battle of prestige
In this triangular fight that upends the state’s two-party polity, the BJP is banking on Brand Modi, Congress on grassroots workers and the AAP on a narrative of change. The outcome will hinge on how much of Congress’s votes shift to the AAP
Just before the 1989 general elections, when the Congress still ruled most of India, a young Narendra Modi, then a relatively unknown party apparatchik in the Gujarat unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called his then party president, LK Advani. He was opposing a seat-sharing pact in the state between the party and Chimanbhai Patel’s Janata Dal. Rajiv Gandhi’s India was in ferment, a national election beckoned, and the rules of Indian politics were being redrawn. “We should fight alone,” pleaded the young party secretary from Ahmedabad. Advani refused. The BJP agreed to give more tickets to its ally in Gujarat. Yet, when the results came, it romped home as the single-largest party in the state for the first time. In six years, the BJP assumed that mantle in the assembly polls too. It has yet to lose elections in Gujarat in the three decades since.
The BJP’s political supremacy in a province that once had the most organised Congress structure of all was the outcome of a new state political system that emerged out of a major social and caste churning in the 1990s. Basically, this was a stable two-party system in which the Congress held up the second pole of the polity. Through the Sonia Gandhi era (1998 onwards), the Congress may never have won Gujarat, but it always had a dependable core vote bank. Over the past 20 years, even through the years of Modi’s chief ministership, the Congress vote-share hovered between 38-41%. In other words, more than one in three Gujaratis always voted for the Congress, even in losing causes.
The rise of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) means that this system that bookended Gujarati politics for three decades is being challenged. If 1989 was an epochal turning point, in 2022 we are seeing a new push to reshape the rules of the political chessboard in Gujarat. How robust is this challenge? And what should we expect?
This election is crucial on several counts. At a time when Rahul Gandhi is trying to revive the Congress with his Bharat Jodo Yatra and the AAP is trying to replace the Congress in state after state, Gujarat is an important test case. The AAP succeeded in taking over the Congress vote in Delhi and Punjab. Kejriwal is now trying to do the same in Gujarat.
Historically, Gujarati politics has had no space for a third force. Even Shankarsinh Vaghela, who led the first great rebellion within the BJP in the mid-1990s and briefly became chief minister (CM) with a rebel faction, failed when his Rashtriya Janata Party experiment was put to the electoral test. Yet, in a state where over 70% of voters have never lived under a non-BJP government, the AAP has certainly brought a great deal of aggression to the contest. Much like in Delhi earlier, the AAP’s basic push in Gujarat is along a class praxis. It is positioning itself as the party of the underclass, says psephologist Jai Mrug of Voters Mood Research. The AAP’s key message to Gujarati voters is that it can be a more effective challenge to the BJP than the Congress.
The challenge for the AAP is that it doesn’t have enough boots on the ground or last-mile party workers. Its local presence varies across the state. The broom symbol seems most visible in Saurashtra, the bastion of Gujarat’s powerful Patidar community that has been the bulwark of BJP’s dominance in the state since the 1990s. Back in 2017, it was resentment among this group, in the form of the now defunct-Patidar Aandolan, that almost upset the BJP’s applecart. It is among Patidars that the AAP is making its first inroads now. It does not have a visible presence in north Gujarat, for example.
Ultimately, this election will hinge on how much of the Congress vote bank shifts to the AAP. The BJP bagged 49.1% of vote in Gujarat in 2017. Theoretically, the AAP would need a majority of the Congress vote (41.4%) as well as a significant chunk of the BJP vote to shift to its side if it wants to win.
If the AAP doesn’t cross a majority threshold of the Congress vote transfer, however, it will basically end up splitting the anti-BJP Opposition vote. This may give the party a high vote percentage, like the C-Voter poll shows, but only a handful of seats. Such a scenario would yield Modi’s party a handsome victory and also set up the AAP as a major challenger the next time round.
For the Congress, this is the first major election on the back of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. In 2017, coinciding with his takeover of the Congress presidency, Rahul Gandhi led the Gujarat campaign from the front. He campaigned almost as much as Modi — travelling a cumulative 24,099 kilometres to Modi’s 32,201 kilometres — and gave the BJP a close run. This time, he has stayed away from the bulk of the campaign, appearing only once towards the end. Many of the leading lights of that campaign are now with BJP. Compared to 2017, the Congress campaign has been low-key, silent and run by committed ground karyakartas (workers). Rahul Gandhi has been getting crowds in south India, but if that doesn’t translate into votes, it will raise larger strategic questions on his choice of largely staying away from this poll fight in a key ideological battleground state.
For the BJP, Gujarat is a prestige battle and yet another test case for the enduring durability of Brand Modi. Barring West Bengal with the Left (1977-2011), no major Indian state has had such continuous rule by any non-Congress party. Narendra Modi was a crucial architect of this ascent. Not only did he serve over twice longer than any other Gujarat CM before him, he also delivered the 2017 triumph, after moving to Delhi as prime minister. A year after the BJP brought in Bhupendra Patel as CM and changed the entire state cabinet, the party’s campaign continues to rest on the Modi persona and his Gujarat connect.
Nalin Mehta is the author of The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political PartyThe views expressed are personal