After the first phase of polling on Thursday for 89 seats, voting will take place for the remaining 93 seats in Gujarat today in the two phase-election that has seen high-decibel campaigns by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Aadmi Party. As Gujarat has overshadowed Himachal Pradesh where voting took place on November 12, all eyes are now set on the BJP’s strongest bastion and home state of both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Moreover, besides being the original ‘laboratory of Hindutva’, it is also the state where the BJP has ruled for 27 years without interruption.
National attention is also focused on Gujarat because the ‘Gujarat model’ of governance, which powered the BJP to the Centre in 2014, will be tested once again to see if that model is going to change. Though the possibility of the BJP losing the poll seems unlikely, as pre-poll opinion surveys suggest, it has however left nothing to chance and its big guns, Mr Modi, Mr Shah and others, have put in all efforts to win big in Gujarat – their target is 150 seats out of 182.
BJP’s mission 150 campaign in 2017 had ended as a close shave when Congress, propelled by the Patidar reservation agitation and led from the front by Rahul Gandhi, gave a tough fight. Besides, Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakur, three young politicians who were neither with the Congress nor the BJP, had drummed up such support and excitement that many believed Mr Modi could even lose his home state. BJP did not lose and managed a simple majority with 99 seats, but the Congress was proclaimed as the ‘real winner’ – it won 77 seats and came close to toppling the BJP from power.
However, things have changed since. One, the Congress isn’t the same. With Rahul Gandhi busy with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress has been almost absent from the campaign in Gujarat, and the AAP has made the most of this. Two, with the entry of the AAP in Gujarat, the election, from a two-horse race, has become a triangular contest. The AAP has not only spiced up things, it is also giving the BJP a spirited fight. Notwithstanding Mr Shah’s claim that the real fight in Gujarat is between the BJP and Congress, the fact remains that this is a high-stakes election for the AAP, irrespective of the outcome.
When Arvind Kejriwal started campaigning in Gujarat six months ago, no one took him seriously. But by the time the Election Commission announced the poll dates, the AAP had become a force to reckon with. Whether the AAP is all optics and little substance is yet to be known, but the question is: will it displace the Congress as the main opposition party in Gujarat? Another question that arises is whether it will damage not just the Congress but also the BJP. While the indication so far is that it will largely make a dent into the vote share of the Congress, it is also expected to get a chunk of the BJP votes.
The AAP represents protest vote; its strength is the voter’s yearning for something new and different from traditional politics. What makes it an attractive option is people’s perception that it represents change. This is precisely the reason – apart from the much-talked about ‘Delhi model’ of governance – why the AAP, from a non-entity a year ago, has emerged as a vital political force in Gujarat. But it’s unlikely that it will repeat its Punjab success in Gujarat. It is projected to get over 10% vote share and its electoral performance is expected to be confined mainly to cities.
Despite a strong showing in the 2017 assembly election, the Congress has failed to capitalise on the gains over the last five years. Its Gujarat unit has had no chief for more than a year. Many of its MLAs switched over to the BJP and Hardik Patel, who was the star of the last election, is now with the BJP. Rahul Gandhi, who created ripples in 2017 with his aggressive campaigning, is everywhere but in Gujarat. While it is said that the Congress has employed a silent strategy to connect with voters, instead of going for big rallies, it is to be seen whether this strategy will yield the desired result for the party, which has consistently garnered over 38% vote share in Gujarat since 1995.
Though the Congress has been losing Gujarat since 1995, its vote share jumped to 42% in the last assembly poll. But this time there is a strong possibility that its vote share will drop substantially, largely because of the AAP. As a result, though the Congress is expected to do well in rural Gujarat, its seat tally is also predicted to go down substantially for which it can only blame itself.
When it comes to elections, trust the BJP to establish connection with voters with a favourable narrative and sustained campaign. Not only does it have the right message for voters, it also has the right messenger in Mr Modi, who has campaigned relentlessly in Gujarat. More important, the BJP has the undisputed poll machinery and the mechanics (cadres) to keep the party in constant motion. The Congress and the AAP are nowhere a match to the BJP’s machinery and mechanics. The AAP has the messenger in Mr Kejriwal but he is no match to Mr Modi in Gujarat.
Gujarat is divided into five regions – north, central, south, Kutch and Saurashtra. North Gujarat has 32 assembly seats; south Gujarat has 35 seats; and Kutch-Saurashtra together have 54 seats. In 2017 election, BJP took the lead in two regions, while the Congress took the honours in the other two. It is said that whichever party wins the most seats in the central region wins Gujarat. Needless to say, the BJP has been doing that since 1995, including in 2017.
For the first time since 1990, three parties are vying for power now. Besides the key question of who will form the government in Gujarat, another question is which party will the AAP damage more – the Congress or BJP?
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule
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