On December 14, all of the exit polls for the Gujarat election suggested that the BJP will retain power for a sixth straight term. Except for the Left parties in West Bengal, no non-Congress party has been able to rule a state for six straight terms. Before the exit polls, there was talk of this election being a close call, that the BJP is facing huge anti-incumbency due to farmer distress, anger from traders, and a Patel agitation among other things.
The results of the exit poll makes still makes me wonder that if the BJP is to win comfortably (as most exit polls suggest), then did we miss a “pro-incumbency” factor? Where did this anger go? Did we see some false anger against the government or is the true relationship between the BJP (prime minister Narendra Modi) and the voters of Gujarat a very personal one like a husband-wife relationship — where one might be angry with the other but he/she does not have much choice to leave or at least does not really want to leave? All of these questions push us to develop some theoretical understanding of the voter-party relationship.
Since September, different news sources indicate that in Surat district, traders (especially textile workers) were protesting against the implementation of GST. They were not happy with the process and policy of the newly implemented GST. Due to the election season in the state, the central government decided to change the rules and GST rates. Even then traders were not fully happy, as they were complaining about the back-to-back implementation of notebandi and GST harming their business.
Apart from unrest in the trading community, farmers were complaining about the low prices for their products. The anger of farmers needs to be analysed carefully. In 2014-16, due to a poor monsoon, farm production declined. But the last two monsoon seasons have been good and farm production was good.
In the same period, the market price of cotton and groundnut declined massively, as many farmers told us that the market price for cotton fell to Rs 750-950 per 20 kg, while it was around Rs 1300-1400 when the UPA was at the Centre. In the last couple of years, Gujarat also faced social unrest due to the Patidar Ananmat Aandolan Samiti (PAAS) movement led by young Hardik Patel, a Dalit movement led by Jignesh Mevani after the Una incident, and an Alpesh Thakor-led movement against illegal liquor sales in the state.
For the 12 years that Narendra Modi was chief minister (2002-2014), Gujarat did not see this kind of unrest. So what does this new found discontent suggest? If we look at Gujarat’s electoral history, it can be found that, unlike Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kerala etc, Gujarat has never not shifted political power – but when it did and the government changed, it was accompanied by social unrest.
In 1974, the student and middle-class Navnirman movement emerged due to economic distress and increasing public corruption, causing the Congress government to lose in 1975. Similarly, the 1985 Patel-led anti-reservation movement led to the ouster of the Congress government in 1990. The Congress has not been able to win a majority in legislature since then.
The past and present situation in the Gujarat still suggests to me that there could be a change of guard this time as the core voters of ruling party BJP, the Patidars and traders, are displaying significant disenchantment. Core voters are sincere voters, who always back a particular party on the basis of certain ideas and/or programmes. Farmers and labourers were core voters of the Left parties in West Bengal, but due to the Nandigram and Singur movement from 2007, farmers got disenchanted with the Left —- leading to their loss in 2011.
All the above conditions suggest that the situation is not good for the BJP this time, but exit polls indicate just the opposite. But instead of making any comments on the exit poll, we should step back and think about the chances for the ruling BJP.
The BJP has never lost the election in Gujarat since winning a majority in 1995. Between 1995 to 2001, Gujarat had seen four chief ministers but after the elevation of Narendra Modi in October 2001, he remained in office until 2014 (before becoming the Prime Minister of India). During the Modi period, Gujarat showed higher economic growth and, most importantly, an improved law and order situation. There was little unrest on the ground (post-2002) and even if there were issues, they were solved quickly.
Even many of the farmers told us that Modi is a good leader, and if he were still the chief minister, the state would not be facing these problems. In urban areas, Modi remains the darling of Gujaratis (especially those old enough to have lived through the 1980s and 1990s), as his regime presided over massive economic development and peace in the state.
Modi is the line of control in Gujarat, which is not so easy to cross for the opposition Congress, as his model of governance and his connection to the people still prevail. The results will be out tomorrow, on December 18, and it will be interesting to see whether Congress (with the help of three Young Turks) will be able to reap the electoral benefits of the social unrest and pull out a surprise.
Has the Congress been able to demonstrate the confidence that it can replace the BJP government in the state and/or can govern the state in a better way? Or will the Congress will fail to translate the anger of voters into votes?