Modi and BJP may lose Gujarat to Congress in 2017

This article has been co-authored by Amitabh Tiwari and Subhash Chandra.

 |  Breaking views  |   Long-form |   01-02-2016
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According to a Times of India report, Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel has been put on notice. She has been given three months by the BJP high command to resolve the Patidar agitation or quit. Party circles are also abuzz with reports of her hobnobbing with Sanjay Joshi of the anti-Modi camp which has not been taken well by the party leadership.

According to a BJP leader quoted in the report, "The feedback from Gujarat was very worrying. Even the most-optimistic projections by our people in Gujarat have said that if things remain the same, it will be tough to remain in power during the Assembly polls in 2017. It won't be just an electoral setback. PM Narendra Modi is from Gujarat and it would give everyone a handle to beat Modi with. Gujarat just can't be lost."

Retaining Gujarat is important for BJP

After big routs in 2015 having lost both the Delhi and Bihar state elections, the BJP has a quieter year in 2016. Out of four states which go to polls in 2016 - Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal - the BJP is in serious contention only in Assam. Assam again is not that important from the point of view of national politics, considering that it sends only 14 MPs to the Lok Sabha.

Also read: Is Modi losing control over Gujarat?

The year 2017 is a do or die year for the party, however, with Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat going to polls. The BJP has been in power in Gujarat uninterruptedly for the past 18 years (almost 13 years under Modi).

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The BJP government under Anandiben Patel has not been able to handle the Patidar agitation in a proper manner. 

The results in the Gujarat municipal polls in which the BJP retained the urban municipal corporations while the Congress managed to win the panchayats, has brought to the forefront the question if the Congress can wrest power from the BJP in Gujarat in 2017.

Congress made significant inroads in municipal elections

The BJP retained all the six municipal corporations (mahanagarpalikas) of Ahmadabad, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar, Rajkot, Surat and Vadodra. Out of the 56 municipalities (nagarpalikas), the BJP won 40, Congress 8, others 3 and five of them were hung. Thus the BJP managed to retain its urban dominance.

However, it received a blow in rural Gujarat. It could win only eight out of the 31 zila panchayats while the Congress won 23. The Congress gained 21 seats, snatching 14 from the BJP and seven from others.

Also read - Best #GharWapsi option: Modi and Amit Shah should return to Gujarat

The results are definitely a cause for cheer for the Congress after a good performance in Bihar piggybacking on the Nitish-Lalu charisma. It not only managed to oust the BJP from the rural hinterland of Gujarat, it also managed to improve its presence in urban areas, where the Congress significantly improved its tally from 100 seats in 2010 to 175 seats in 2015. The BJP's tally fell from 443 to 390 in the mahanagarpalikas.

Possible reasons for this setback for BJP

Unlike the economic performance of Gujarat on the whole, the agriculture economy in the state has seen wide swings in performance over the last ten years. In 2013, agriculture and allied services made up for 11 per cent of the economy as against 17 per cent in 2006.

Out of the 24.7 million workers in Gujarat, nearly 15.7 million are dependent on agriculture. There are 40.6 million voters in Gujarat of which only 25.8 million voted in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In other words, agricultural workers play a crucial role in determining election results.

Also read: Why Modi is petrified of losing Gujarat civic polls

The Gujarat government had made substantial investments in increasing irrigation coverage in the state but it is likely that those benefits have reached a few farmers and the inconsistent agricultural performance suggests that the quality of the irrigation is highly suspect.

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Related to this fact is that most of central and eastern Gujarat have seen a failure in monsoon with nearly 27 per cent shortfall in rains between June 1 and September 30, 2015. This should be seen in parallel with the fact that the Modi government has tightened the noose on minimum support price (MSP) increases in a bid to control inflation.

Also, poor export performance by India has also suppressed agriculture prices this year. Unlike the past when some of the blame could have been attributed to the UPA government at the Centre by the state, this time around, with the BJP in power in both places, the entire anger could only be directed against it.

Secondly, as the economy transitions towards one based on services and manufacturing, education becomes extremely important. Here, the BJP government's performance has been less than stellar. In 2010, Gujarat's class I-IX dropout rate was 62 per cent, while at the national level, it was 53 per cent.

Among the states with higher per capita income, which also includes Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Kerala, Gujarat has the lowest percentage of graduates in the 15-plus age group. In rural Gujarat, only three per cent of the population has a graduate degree as against five per cent or more in rest of the affluent states. In fact, only a third of rural population aged seven and above have had education of primary or higher levels. Compare this with Tamil Nadu where nearly 46 per cent of the population has had primary education or higher.

One really positive story coming out of Gujarat is the extremely low unemployment of nearly four per cent versus the national level unemployment rate of nearly ten per cent. However, in the 2011 Census, only 1.2 per cent of the households in rural Gujarat reported owning all the following assets - televisions, computers/laptops, telephones/mobile phones and scooters/ cars. This figure was 12.7 per cent for urban Gujarat.

When all the above figures are juxtaposed, we believe that the biggest reason for the dissatisfaction amongst rural voters is not that they are not able to earn a livelihood, but that a combination of vagaries of nature and poor education is increasing the differences in wealth when compared to other citizens of Gujarat.

When combined with the absence of both Modi and Amit Shah, opposition forces along with long-term rivals of Modi in the party see this as a perfect environment to stake their claim to power. In many ways, the Patidar agitation and the results of the local body elections are an outcome of all the above factors.

Congress has been playing second fiddle to BJP for more than two decades in Gujarat. So the municipal poll results are a shocker for the BJP

The BJP has been in power in Gujarat since March 1998. During this period, it has maintained a strong lead over Congress (over ten per cent vote share gap) and at no point has the Congress been in the race to wrest power from the BJP. Under Modi's rule from October 2001 to May 2014, the BJP further strengthened its position and increased its vote share from 45 per cent to 48-50 per cent.

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Since 1990, the BJP's tally has been over two times of that of the Congress in Gujarat. Its tally fell just a tad below two times in the 2007 and 2012 Assembly polls.

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8 reasons the 2017 state polls will be a close battle

1. Anti-incumbency against Anandiben government

By the time Gujarat goes to polls in December 2017, the BJP would have completed around 20 years of continuous rule in the state. This is long enough to create anti-incumbency against any regime, irrespective of the nature of the work done. Low cotton prices, non-availability of irrigation water for farmers, widening gap between the rich and poor and so on could be a few reasons for the anti-incumbency.

Further, this will be the first state polls in the past 16 years when the BJP will be facing elections in the state not under Modi-Shah leadership. Secondly, for the first time since 2002, the state may have to deal with dual anti-incumbency, both at the Centre and the state giving the chief minister lesser excuses for any poor performance.

2. Patidar agitation against BJP

The BJP government has not been able to handle the Patidar agitation in a proper manner and its strong stance has forced the community to look for other options. The loss in the rural areas in the local body polls is also attributed partly to the tactical voting by the Hardik Patel-led Patidars who are at odds with the Anandiben government demanding reservations for the community.

Patidars (Patels) account for 16 per cent of the state population and have been traditional supporters of the BJP (about 70 per cent voted for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls).

Patidar community votes account for about one-fifth of the total vote share of the BJP (ten per cent). This could be the deciding factor in next polls as this vote share is equal to the historical gap between the BJP and Congress. They can influence the results in 73 seats (Source: The Gujarat Electoral Calculus, 2012).

In the 2012 polls, the Keshubhai Patel (Leuva Patel)-led Gujarat Parivartan Party bagged 3.6 per cent vote share and led to the defeat of BJP candidates in 23 seats in Saurashtra and Kutch. The current Patidar agitation is much bigger in comparison to Keshubhai revolt.

3. Leadership issue: Anandiben is no Modi

With due respect to Anandiben, she is not perceived to be as charismatic as Modi. Modi has an aura and charisma which she lacks. Some party critics point out that the next elections will be toughest for the BJP and it needs a much more aggressive leader to counter the Ahmad Patel-Shankersinh Vaghela duo. Secondly, unlike the Modi-Shah duo, Anandiben has lesser control over the party and more opposition and dissident leaders would be ready to spoil her prospects in order to improve their own chances for power.

4. Muslims may return to Congress

In Gujarat, 20-25 per cent of the Muslims, and according to some reports, even as high as 31 per cent voted for the BJP in the 2012 state polls despite the BJP giving no ticket to the members from their community. In an environment where there is some level of intolerance in the country (as even admitted by Union minister Venkaiah Naidu in Parliament), this section of voters may go back to the Congress.

Muslims account for ten per cent of the state's population which would translate to a two-three per cent vote share loss for the BJP. They can influence the results of 36 seats in the state.

5. Majority of the Assembly seats are rural

Fifty-seven per cent of the population of Gujarat lives in rural areas. The BJP has traditionally been strong in urban areas (54 per cent of its MLA strength are from urban areas) while the Congress in rural areas (74 per cent of its MLAs are from rural areas). The six municipal corporations which the BJP won are predominantly urban, with only seven seats out of 79 being rural. This makes it 112 rural and 72 urban seats in a house strength of 184. The civic polls show that the Congress has an upper hand in the rural areas.

6. BJP has lost vote share compared to Lok Sabha polls in all state elections

The BJP got 60.1 per cent vote share in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 riding on a strong Modi wave and Gujarat returned all 26 seats to the party. In all state elections held after the Lok Sabha polls (except for Maharashtra), the BJP has lost vote share. A loss of 30 per cent vote share (similar to Delhi) will bring it to 48 per cent, which would be similar to what it got in the 2012 state elections. Add to this the probable movement of Patidar voters away from the BJP, which could make it tighter for the party.

7. Decline in the state's economic growth

The GDP growth rate of Gujarat has been declining in the last few years. It has almost halved from 15 per cent in 2005-'06 to eight per cent in 2012-'13. It has also lost its tag of one of the fastest growing states in India, and from being in the Top 5 during 2007-'12 it has slipped to the ninth position during 2012-'14, when one considers per capita income growth on constant price basis.

8. Collateral damage

Modi would have completed three-and-a-half years in office by 2017-end. His government's performance will also have a bearing on the Gujarat polls. If there is anger/frustration with the Modi government at the Centre, this may be reflected in voting against the BJP in the state. By the time Anandiben seeks re-election, elections to eight states would have taken place. A loss in Assam, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh may have a bearing on the results in Gujarat as well.

What could work for BJP?

1. Gujarati asmita

Modi's popularity in the state and people identifying his rise to stardom with Gujarati asmita (pride) could potentially work for the party. Modi became the prime minister riding on the development work done in Gujarat. His Gujarat model of development has earned global praise while also attracting voters of other states. Modi could still convince people based on this emotional pitch in 2017.

2. Win in other states

A win in Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and retaining states like Goa and Punjab could create a sense of positive atmosphere which may have a rubbing effect on BJP's performance in Gujarat.

3. Lack of leadership in Congress

The Congress, while enthused, still does not have a strong local leader who could inspire both the cadre and the voters. Amongst the central leaders, there is no evidence that Rahul Gandhi is being favoured by local voters though this could be tested in the next few months.

Secondly, it is unclear what vision the Congress would offer the majority urban voters without whom it is unlikely to win Gujarat. Under its president Sonia Gandhi, the party has mostly concentrated its effort on rural India and its vision for urban India has been quite hazy. Further, the Congress' tactics at the central level need more fine-tuning if it wishes to become the most preferred party in India.

To sum up, Gujarat is set for a cracker of an election in 2017. The state is of immense strategic importance to the BJP's national plans and is the state where the BJP has been in power for one of the longest periods uninterruptedly.

The Congress with an improved performance is sniffing a chance to come back to power after two decades. The state is very important for Modi's bid for a second term because any loss on his home turf could jeopardise his chances at the national level and could provide much embarrassment. There is a keen battle ahead.

Writer

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