While India experienced a major process of regionalisation and decentralisation at the end of the 1980s, which contributed to the rise of regional parties first at the state level and then in national coalitions, national parties retained a dominant position in at least 15 states. In Gujarat, the BJP has been in power since 1995, with a brief 16-month interlude in the mid-1990s, when a splinter group, led by Shankersinh Vaghela and Dilip Parikh, held power in a minority government supported by the Congress. No regional party has succeeded in winning more than one or, at the most, two terms in Gujarat. Most attempts to create regional parties were short-lived. In fact, most non-Congress and non-BJP governments were led by leaders who defected from national parties: Shankersinh Vaghela in the mid-1990s, and Chimanbhai Patel before him.
Why is that the case? Is this because there is no appetite for regionalism amongst Gujarati voters? Evidence from a post-poll survey conducted in 2004 by Lokniti-CSDS points to the contrary. Almost 60 per cent of Gujarati respondents said that they completely or somewhat agreed with the statement that “compared to national parties, regional/local parties can provide better government in states”. This shows that there certainly is an appetite for regional politics in Gujarat, much like the rest of India. But then, how do we reconcile this opinion with the fact that the state has been dominated by the BJP for the past 22 years?
One argument is that since the mid-1990s, the BJP has been able to embody an increasingly dominant form of regional identity, a role performed by regional parties in states where national parties have declined. The sources of the regional character of the BJP in Gujarat come from the way its organisation was built, and the transformations brought by Narendra Modi during his tenure as chief minister.
Historically, the BJP emerged in Gujarat as an urban phenomenon, first winning municipal elections before growing as a statewide political force. The party organisation built itself from the ground, in various sub-regional strongholds controlled by prominent party leaders: Keshubhai Patel in Rajkot, Vaghela in Kheda district, and Suresh Mehta in Kutch, among others. These local bosses enjoyed great autonomy vis-a-vis the party high command in Delhi. They competed against each other for control over the party’s state unit and, therefore, the chief ministership.
Strong local anchorage, deep ties with local business communities and control over local structures of power have always been the strengths of the BJP in Gujarat. In the mid-1990s, however, competition between faction leaders took a sour turn and led to major defections, leaving the state party in disarray.
The situation changed once Modi took control of the party and the state in 2001. The new chief minister, appointed by the Centre, sought to undermine the party’s sub-regional bosses first by pitting them against each other, then by garnering party funding from large corporations instead of the party’s local clientelistic networks. He also appointed leaders of many municipal corporations and other local institutions directly, bypassing local party branches. In so doing, he deprived sub-regional leaders of their autonomy and developed the image of a leader who put state before party.
At the same time, the rise of Modi as a polarising figure after the Gujarat riots enabled him to develop a strong regionalist stance, expressed by a continuous confrontational attitude towards Delhi. As noted by Christophe Jaffrelot, after 2003, Modi shifted to new political repertoires to consolidate and expand his electoral base. He projected himself as a vikas purush first, and then as an embodiment of the Gujarati asmita (soul). This wasn’t new since Gujarati subnationalism had already been articulated around symbolically charged statewide projects, such as the pro-Narmada dam movement. But Gujarat’s now elected chief minister would systematise this discourse, equating himself personally with the idea of a Gujarati regional identity, and by giving strong Hindutva overtones to this identity.
Post 2014, the BJP Gujarat state unit regained a modicum of autonomy, with the Modi-Shah duo occupied with national politics. Factionalism resurfaced, as illustrated by the crisis that led to the ousting of Anandiben Patel in August 2016. But the electoral campaign and strategy remain firmly in the grip of the central command. The BJP’s trajectory stands in stark contrast to that of the Congress state unit during the same period. Until the mid-1980s, Congress chief ministers were given considerable autonomy by the central branch in running the state-level organisation. Things changed after Rajiv Gandhi became the Congress president, as appointments and electoral strategy came to be dictated from Delhi.
In October 1990, the party high command directed its state branch to form an alliance with the Janata Dal (Gujarat). Many in the Gujarat Congress were opposed to forming an alliance with a former adversary, Chimanbhai Patel, whom they previously branded as a pro-rich, upper-caste peasant leader. Similarly, the Congress state branch was weary of supporting BJP defector, Shankarsinh Vaghela,and his Rashtriya Janata Party government in 1996. Many in the state branch believed that he was trying to make inroads into the Congress’s traditional support base. Not only did the Congress high command direct the state branch to extend outside support to Vaghela’s party in 1998, but it also accepted his terms of a merger with the Gujarat Congress prior to the 2002 assembly elections, as well as making him the president of the Gujarat Congress ahead of the campaign.
The BJP’s massive victory validated the Congress state unit’s reservations about the high command’s strategy. Ironically, prior to the 2007 regional elections, and in light of the changed context, many in the Congress state unit demanded restraint from their central leaders, especially when it came to making statements that would appear to go against Hindu nationalism. Central leaders did not heed their demands, using terms like “Hindu terrorist” and “merchant of death”. These were perceived as personally targeting the CM and were portrayed by the BJP as a reflection of the Congress’ “anti-Hindu” stance. During the 2012 elections, the Congress state unit was again sidelined by the party’s central leadership, which turned the election into a personal contest between Modi and the Gandhis.
Today, both the Congress and BJP state units are under the control of their parties’ high commands. The BJP, however, has considerable advantages by virtue of power at the Centre and the PM’s appeal. It seems unlikely that a strategy consisting of pitting a national leader in quest of credibility against a popular PM hailing from Gujarat and belonging to a party that has succeeded in presenting itself as the embodiment of a dominant version of Gujarat’s regional identity, will pay off.
Verniers is assistant professor of political science and co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University. Shrimankar is PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. Views are personal