Written by Amit Dholakia
By achieving an unprecedented landslide in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has equalled the previous record of winning seven consecutive state elections held by the Left Front in West Bengal. Only Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in Odisha seems capable of repeating this feat in states. Such one-party dominance is extremely rare in functioning democracies, which are expected to see alternations in power as a regular part of the political culture. So, for decades now, why has Gujarat not had healthy electoral competition in which more than one party has an equal probability of winning? Interestingly, at the global level, countries like Israel, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Ireland and Australia, which had once experienced a similar one-party dominance system, have moved out of it in the face of the growth of a pluralistic political landscape within their societies.
The scale of the BJP’s victory is extraordinary and, therefore, very perplexing. Not only has it added a substantial number of new voters, raising its vote share to more than 50 per cent, the party has also trumped Congress in its traditional strongholds of the tribal belt, rural Saurashtra and North Gujarat, where it was expected to perform better than the BJP based on its skills in social engineering cultivated since the days of the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) strategy of Madhavsinh Solanki.
This election has raised serious questions about analysing Gujarat politics by using unreliable demographic data on caste and other social identities. The BJP candidates winning seats which the party has never won during the last few decades due to adverse caste dynamics confirms that voting behaviour in Gujarat is today determined by a complex set of interconnected and independent factors, including the ideology of Hindutva, religious identity, charisma of leaders, developmental expectations, party identification and concerns over national security.
BJP is now seen as the natural party of governance by its loyal voters in the state, who are not ready to be lured by promises of freebies or believe in criticism of BJP’s governance record by opposition parties. Many BJP voters in Gujarat see themselves not just as subjects of the electoral process. For them, voting for BJP is a contribution to the party’s historical project of cultural nationalism and development. BJP has achieved success in converting a normal electoral process into a historical and civilisational project through decades of ideological work at the grass roots level through the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliated bodies.
The decades-long and unflinching voter loyalty enjoyed by BJP in Gujarat is a cumulative outcome as much of the above factors as of the self-destructive impulse of a divided, disoriented, and leaderless state Congress party. Also, it would be facile to attribute the BJP’s massive victory exclusively to the deep emotional bonding between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gujaratis. His blitzkrieg campaign in the state and his larger-than-life persona for Gujarat’s voters were crucial but not the only determining factors. The Modi magic was present even in 2017 when BJP was confined to 99 seats in the face of an assertive Congress campaign. BJP’s victory cannot be construed in any other way except as a favourable vote in favour of not just Narendra Modi’s colossal leadership but also in favour of ensuring stability and continuity of economic and industrial policies, which are essential, particularly for the state’s business-oriented classes.
The voter endorsement of the scale the BJP got in 2022 has to have a basis in deep trust and a sense of satisfaction that ordinary people of Gujarat feel, rightly or wrongly, about the party’s record of governance and its capacity to deliver on the core expectations of development and security. The slogans “Bharosa ni Bhajap Sarkar” (trustworthy BJP government) and ‘Double Engine Sarkar’ struck a chord with the masses who felt that it is better to stick to the tried and tested political product rather than falling for new producers who offered heavy discounts and gifts on their untried products.
Massive electoral victories come with the inherent risk of turning into a stimulus for the authoritarian instincts of the ruling regime. The concentration of power in the hands of a single party can disturb the delicate system of checks and balances. The BJP would now face a much-weakened Opposition in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha. This opposition was absent in the public spaces outside the legislature during the previous two decades. In such virtually opposition-less political state polity, the BJP would need to work out ways of receiving objective feedback on its policies and political programmes because voters can also turn massive mandates into defeats in the subsequent elections, as Rajiv Gandhi experienced despite winning 414 seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. Closer home, Madhavsinh Solanki had to resign within less than six months after securing a 55.5 per cent vote share and 149 seats in the Vidhan Sabha in 1985. Here lies the challenge for both Bhupendra Patel and the civil society of Gujarat.
The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Arts, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda