Gujarat Assembly elections: Torn between change and continuity

PM Narendra Modi rallies in Gujarat Surendranagar
Underneath the tussle between contesting narratives in the Gujarat poll battle, the Congress party is facing a spring of green shoots amid a climate of red zones on their poll platter. 

Urban constituencies have been increasingly affirmative towards the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the past decade. Rural ones, especially those reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs), have expressed consistent support to the Congress. 

Constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) have mostly returned BJP candidates in 2007 and 2012. The Congress took away the BJP's leadership of rural local bodies — the district and taluka panchayats — in the 2015 local election. 

More than anything else, the Congress is banking on the unrest caused due to quota agitations and mobilisation of a non-parliamentary opposition to the BJP on one hand, and angst among urban traders who bore losses after demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) implementation on the other. 

Even before Amit Shah took over as its national president, the BJP’s focus was the state's urban constituencies. The party consolidated its urban base with increasing rigour from 2007 to the 2012 Assembly election, and then in the 2014 general election. 

Of the 61 Assembly seats in the most urbanised districts of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat and Rajkot, the BJP won 48 in 2012, bettering their performance from 34 among 55 seats in 2007. The Congress deteriorated here, from 18 (of 55) to 12 (of 61) seats. And, had a massive blow across the state in 2014, being able to lead in only 17 Assembly segments among the 182 in the 26 parliamentary constituencies. 

Gujarat is also the only leading industrialised state with more ST Assembly constituencies (27 or 15 per cent) than SC ones 

(13 or 7 per cent) among the 182 seats (removed the full forms as they have appeared before). Unlike in the cities and their periphery, the Congress here has an upper hand. It won 15 of the 26 ST constituencies in 2007 and 16 of the 27 in 2012 (the 2008 delimitation increased ST seats by one). One JD (U) seat got added to the Congress kitty, owing to an alliance. 

However, this lead in 15 per cent of the assembly seats falls short of the lead the BJP takes in the urban ones. And, constituencies reserved for SCs have been a boon for the BJP. It won 11 and 10 among the 13 SC seats in 2007 and 2012, respectively. “SC-reserved constituencies were very similar to general ones in most ways. The same parties won elections there, a similar number of candidates ran for election, they were similarly competitive and there was no systematic difference in 'feeling represented' among SCs or non-SCs," says Francesca Jensenius, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, in her recently published book titled Social justice through inclusion: The consequences of electoral quotas in India.

However, the recent electoral performance in rural local bodies could give hope to the Congress. According to data collated by Darshan Desai, in an article in Economic and Political Weekly (July 9, 2016), the Congress won presidentship to 24 district panchayats in 2015, as against one in 2010; the BJP came down to six, from 30. Deeper down at the tehsil level, the Congress won presidentship to 134 tehsil panchayats in 2015, from 26 in 2010; the BJP slipped from leading 150 panchayats to 67. 

The vote share of both in rural local body elections, however, remains 42-50 per cent, narrow margins and local factors affecting the presidentships. Further, though the Congress bettered its vote share in municipal bodies in 2015, it could not cross that of the BJP. 

Caste politics and an unprecedented twist in the political economy, however, pose a challenge to the BJP. The Patidar agitation which erupted in 2015 has seen hundreds of thousands of youth gathering in cities, demanding reservations and creating a mass mobilisation in its wake. Ahmedabad, Mehsana and Surat have seen numerous clashes in the past two years. Textile traders in Surat went on strike against GST implementation in the last week of June, just when the new indirect tax was rolled out. This lasted three weeks. The BJP controls the political economy of trade and extracts political support from the trade value chain, which the protests disturbed to some extent. 

“This is the first time traders have suffered losses to this extent; so, there is some unhappiness. But, we do not have a strong opposition, with strong leaders, as an option,” Shitij Jain, an apparel manufacturer and supplier, told Business Standard. 

Officebearers of some prominent trade associations, however, did admit that the anger would translate into votes this time, since the amount of loss has been enormous. And, it is the first time in two decades that Gujarat has had three chief ministers in one Assembly tenure, with declining popularity, despite having a clear electoral mandate since the rise of Narendra Modi in 2002.

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