The Gujarat election has not led to a transfer of power in the state. But it may still be a turning point because of the moral victory of the Rahul Gandi-led Congress. The elections have accentuated a number of trends that were visible in 2012 and have added a new one, which polarised the electorate further to the benefit of both the BJP and the Congress. In terms of vote share, the performance of the two parties remains stable. The BJP increased its vote share from 48 per cent in 2012 to 49.1 per cent, and the Congress raised its vote share from 39 per cent to 41.4 per cent. In terms of seats, however, the results are less skewed than in the previous elections. The BJP’s tally has fallen and the Congress has increased its presence in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha. Stable vote shares and a more proportionate distribution of seats indicate a greater polarisation of voters.
The overall turnout was down from 71.3 per cent in 2012 to 68.5 per cent. As in the previous elections, the rural-urban divide was salient. Voter participation in rural areas exceeded that of urban areas by five points (70.6 per cent against 65 per cent). With a 64.4 per cent turnout, Saurashtra and Kutch, the two sub-regions more affected by agrarian distress, lagged behind central and south Gujarat (70.2 and 70.8, respectively). Compared to 2012, the turnout in Saurashtra and Kutch fell by five points. The Congress’s tally was bolstered by its performance in Saurashtra, a region in which the agricultural crisis resulting from the low price of cotton, groundnut and other products has fuelled peasant’s distress, particularly among the Patels. The party has won the sub-region for the first time in years.
The BJP has been saved by its strong performance in large cities and their peripheries. It won 15 seats out of 20 in Ahmedabad, nine out of 10 in Vadodara, and 15 out of 16 in the Surat area. So much for the backlash against demonetisation and GST. Urbanisation plays a major role in dividing caste groups in Gujarat. Like in 2012, the urban members of a caste group displayed a greater propensity to vote for the BJP. This undermined the unity of the Patels, among others.
Beyond these trends, new developments have taken place. First, the Patels have shifted from the BJP to the Congress in unprecedented numbers since the 1990s. This is an offshoot of the Patel agitations that have shaken the state since 2015. The mobilisation of young Patels by Hardik Patel, a Kadwa Patel, deepened the existing class divide among the Patels — the urban affluent ones remaining behind the BJP and the Kadwa Patels shifting more towards the Congress than the Leuvas (to whom the Congress had given 17 tickets, against 12 to the Kadwa Patels). This is a significant change. Second — and correlatively, in part — the geography of the results has changed. The BJP lost ground in places which where the crucible of the Patel agitation — north Gujarat and Saurashatra.
A third transformation lies within the Congress itself. For once, the party had a consistent well-organised (despite the last-minute candidate selection) campaign. It got rid of Shankersinh Vaghela, an old RSS hand who became Gujarat Congress president in the early 2000s. It succeeded in capitalising on the popularity of young activists like Hardik Patel, with whom it could strike a deal, Alpesh Thakor, the OBC leader who joined the party and Jignesh Mevani, who supported the Congress as an ally. Both Thakor and Mevani won with hefty margins. The campaign saw the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as an effective mobiliser. He held 30 rallies across the state and exposed the loopholes of the “Gujarat model”, especially in rural areas. But in order to be competitive, the Congress had to compromise its secular identity. Not only did the party give very few tickets to Muslim candidates (six against seven in 2012), but Rahul Gandhi visited a record number of temples (12) during his 12-days Navsarjan yatra.
The BJP was confronted by anger on the ground, especially in the rural areas, about the party’s arrogance, lack of jobs and unchecked inequalities. It was saved by the intervention of Narendra Modi during the last days of the campaign. Enormous resources and aggressive rhetoric were mobilised to secure the party’s base. Like in his previous election campaigns in Gujarat, the PM highlighted the development plank before turning to a Hindu nationalist rhetoric, that had already been widely articulated anonymously on social media platforms. This rhetoric culminated in references to the alleged anti-national collusions of the Congress leaders with Pakistan and to the invocation of the riots in the past, which were allegedly due to the Congress. This discourse overlooked the fact that Modi was CM in 2002, but it did strike a chord among the urban Hindu middle class. As a son of the soil, Modi could also play the Gujarati asmita card to his advantage against an outsider, Rahul Gandhi. If the BJP’s official plank is development, the subtext of the Gujarat politics remains ethno-religious.
The BJP has fallen short of the 150 seats promised by Amit Shah. More worryingly for the party, no regional leader has emerged. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani himself was not a crowd-puller. Other prominent ministers struggled to retain their seats.
Both parties have reasons to be satisfied. The BJP has retained the PM’s home turf while the Congress has scored a moral victory which may help the party to reposition itself as a centrepiece of a future opposition coalition. The road to the 2019 general election, though, remains filled with obstacles and tough contests.