Free Press Journal

Gujarat Assembly Election 2017: It is prestige versus political revival



The political class is currently preoccupied with election in Gujarat which has also generated high level of interest in media and public space. In an attempt to turbo-charge BJP’s campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently on a whirlwind tour of the state which goes to poll on December 9 and 14. Gujarat is a must-win election for Modi who swept the state in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. BJP has ruled the state since 1995 and Modi was its chief minister from 2001 to 2014. Opinion polls suggest that the BJP is likely to win the election quite comfortably. That should be quite comforting for the prime minister and his party.

However, it’s not going to be an easy contest. If reports are to be believed, the assembly election may turn out to be a close two-way contest between the BJP and the Congress. The BJP had achieved a peak in support in the 2014 parliamentary elections with vote share of 59 per cent, against 33 per cent of the Congress. In 2012 assembly election, BJP’s vote share was 48 per cent (115 seats), while it was 39 per cent (61 seats) for the Congress. For BJP voters in Gujarat, it is always Modi first and then the party. That was certainly the case till 2014. But with Modi not around in Gandhinagar for the last three and half years, things may have changed.

Having ruled the state for 22 years, it is a matter of prestige for BJP to retain power in Gujarat. For the Congress, it is an opportunity for its political revival. A few trends have emerged from pre-election surveys. The important factor that will play key role is the prime minister’s personal popularity. BJP workers believe that Modi’s son-of-Gujarat narrative will ensure a definite win for BJP, despite the Patidar factor and Dalit agitation. The prime minister also knows that Gujarat is far too important an election to win and win it handsomely.

Opinion polls are divided over the victory margin for BJP in terms of seats. One poll has suggested that the incumbent party will maintain its historical vote share lead of 10 per cent over the Congress, while another has claimed it will come down to 6 per cent. However, the most common theme in the surveys is a significant decline in support among the Patidars for the BJP, which is not surprising. The BJP is also likely to lose support from among the Muslims, which was 20 per cent in 2012 election. However, some polls claim that the BJP is likely to be rescued by the Adivasi and Dalit voters, the traditional vote bank of the Congress, by at least 5 to 6 per cent in vote share.

Opinion surveys do not rule out the possibility of Congress making a dent into BJP’s vote share. However, despite the decline in support in certain key segments, the BJP is still in a better position to win because the loss is likely to be compensated by gains elsewhere. Nevertheless, irrespective of the final result, an interesting contest is underway in Gujarat: the BJP is trying hard for a sixth consecutive term and the Congress is striving hard for its comeback not only in Gujarat but also at the national level. Certainly, a lot is at stake for both the parties.

During campaign over the last one month, Rahul has revealed his aggressive side. Assailed and discredited for almost three years on the social as well as in mainstream media for his alleged ‘political incompetence’ and ‘reluctance’ to helm the oldest political party in India, the Congress vice-president is trying hard to make his mark as leader of the down-and-out party, before he dons the hat of the Congress president later this month. The Gujarat election result will have a significant impact on the perception in political and public domains on Rahul’s ability to lead the Congress in state elections in 2018 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Till recently, not many took Rahul Gandhi seriously. But he no longer sounds unsure and reluctant.

Likewise, Gujarat is a crucial test for Modi’s ‘leadership ratings’. The BJP has contested 21 major assembly elections under Modi as prime minister since mid-2014. The BJP wrested power on its own in three states – Haryana, Assam and Uttarakhand – from the Congress. In another 10 states the BJP-led NDA formed governments with the help of its alliance partners. The Congress retained power in Arunachal Pradesh and Puducherry, and won in Punjab and Kerala, the latter with the help of its alliance partner. Bihar and Delhi were major setbacks for BJP under Modi as PM.

Gujarat is the first state where the BJP formed its majority government in the mid-90s. It is also the first state where the BJP is seeking a re-election on its own without any allies. Gujarat is also the first election in the home turf of Modi and Amit Shah after becoming PM and BJP president, respectively. Gujarat has been showcased as BJP’s ‘model state’, though many economists have found faults with the Gujarat model of development. The prime minister has also projected himself as the leader who is single-mindedly devoted to India’s all round economic development. The assembly election of 2012 had a definite impact on the parliamentary elections in 2014. Similarly, Gujarat 2017 becomes equally important for the BJP and the Congress as its outcome will have a bearing on the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

The BJP may be facing a strong challenge from the Congress, but independent observers and market veterans are also confident of a BJP victory.  In their view, the odds of BJP winning Gujarat are high, even though it could secure the win with fewer seats than in 2012 election. This sounds plausible as what matters more to voters is BJP’s performance over the last five years. After Modi moved to Delhi, the last three and half years have not been best for Gujarat in terms of governance. Anandiben Patel who replaced Modi as CM was a disaster. Vijay Rupani, the incumbent, is a disappointment. Sections of people in Gujarat – the Patel, Dalits, Schedules Tribes, minorities, farmers, traders and small and medium businesses – have genuine grievances against the government. The incumbency factor is also likely to work against the BJP. But it is also true that the Congress is not comfortably placed to take full advantage of the BJP’s shortcomings to provide an alternative.

The author is an independent senior journalist.