It was an election that the Gujarat government had not wanted, at least not now, and it made no bones about it. The government had told the Gujarat High Court that the timing was not conducive to hold free and fair elections, apparently referring to the damage caused by the Patidar agitation.
The elections were finally held at the behest of the high court and the State Election Commission went about with the reparations, in the brief time it had.
The good turnout for both elections compared to 2010 – municipal corporation (45 per cent) and the nagarpalika, district and taluka panchayat elections (over 60 per cent) – held during the Diwali holidays, and the marriage season, indicated the interest of the proverbial “last man” in these elections.
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Unlike last time, the contest was confined to the Congress and the BJP, (except in Bharuch where Janata Dal (U) has a presence). Voters of the taluka and district panchayats chose to repose faith in the Congress, which has not been in power in Gujarat for almost 25 years and was completely routed in the national elections last year with no Lok Sabha win from Gujarat.
The BJP held on to all six municipal corporations, retaining its urban constituency. The victory in the urban centres was a saviour for Anandiben Patel – though the BJP won the six municipal corporations and 42 of 56 municipalities, the number of seats has been reduced.
However, the BJP which had won 2,460 taluka seats in 2010 (Congress got 1,428), is down to 2,017 and the Congress up to 2,548 taluka panchayat seats in these elections. The Congress has also wrested 20 of 31 (368 seats to BJP, 595 to Congress, 9 to independents) district panchayats.
The real setback came in Saurashtra and north Gujarat. It is said that if you feel the pulse of the voter in the Saurashtra peninsula you can tell which way Gujarat will vote. Going by that the Congress won nine of the 11 district panchayats in Saurashtra, and wrested six taluka panchayats from the BJP with a high lead. The win is largely attributed to the disillusionment among farmers, most of whom are Patidars.
A loud wake-up call came from north Gujarat a BJP stronghold, as the Congress won by a large margin the taluka panchayats even in the districts of Mehsana, Gandhinagar, Sabarkantha and Patan.
The district is not only home to Modi, but also Anandiben, and four other ministers.
Even as the Congress owed much of its rural victories to the Patidar vote, the BJP found many Muslims chose it over the Congress, leading to first time wins of BJP’s Muslim candidates. The Patidar vote for the Congress is as unreliable as as the Muslim vote is for the BJP. Thus, the results cannot become a benchmark for the assembly elections in 2017. Sources in the BJP say the party can only be assured that “it no longer needs the Patidar to win urban elections”.
The vote was largely an anti-incumbency one, fought on issues of failing crops, farmer suicides, ambiguous land acquisition laws, affordable housing and infrastructure rather than on the promises of smart cities or wi-fi enabled towns, or a `Gatisheel’ Gujarat and its slogans of inclusive development.
The Patidar agitation, under the guise of a demand for OBC quota, brought these issues to the fore, making the government hurriedly announce a scholarship scheme for students denied admissions in spite of merit.
To some extent, the BJP had been reaping the benefits of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), launched in 2005 by the then UPA government, in local elections, given that Gujarat won many laurels for its tangible benefits. But so far, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government has not made any major announcements under this mission or in lieu of it.
The Patidar agitation has shaken up the party which this time did not have Modi’s charisma to make up for the performance failures of the government. Its netas realised that they were disconnected from the community.