Gujarat elections: What has turned BJP's easiest turf into its fiercest battle?
It's one of the rarest electoral fights between concurrent economic factors versus conventional polity.
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Despite Hardik Patel's mercurial rise, Rahul Gandhi's self-discovery, an uninspiring BJP leadership in the state and anger against the GST, no rational political watcher would put his money on BJP's defeat in Gujarat's Assembly elections.
Having said so, why does Gujarat appear to be different this time? What is it that has turned the BJP's easiest turf into its fiercest battle?
Unlike Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where socio-politics trumps politico-economy, Gujarat is a genuine laboratory of political economy in India, and the oddness of this election lies there. In political economic terms, Gujarat has become the most peculiar elections after economic liberalisation in India. The results of this state will come up with answers to three questions that Indian politics face for the first time.
1) How does economic decline influence electoral verdicts in industrial economies?
2) Despite economic growth, can social inequalities have an impact on electoral choices?
3) How do people vote in the backdrop of consistent anti-government agitations and political shake-up?
Not the distant past, but the economic and political events of the past 42 months have made Gujarat an electoral thriller. In last two decades, Gujarat has bucked the national trend both politically as well as economically.
While under the leadership of Narendra Modi, the nation at large looked forward to rejuvenation, his own Gujarat was passing through people's anger and political turmoil.
In July 2016, the Gujarat government acknowledged a deep slowdown in the state's economy. In the very first year (2014-2015) after Modi's ascent to Delhi, Gujarat moved out from the list of top five fastest-growing (GSDP) states and slipped to 10th position in the country. Just a year before Gujarat ranked second with growth rate of 10.8 per cent under chief minister Narendra Modi.
(Strangely, on Gujarat, the RBI and Niti Aayog's handbook on state statistics do not provide GSDP data on the state after 2013-2014)
By the time the deep economic slowdown was officially recognised, the Patidar movement had completed the first year of its existence. The violent movement by unemployed youth for reservation in government jobs had forced the BJP to change its state leadership to set the ground for a tough electoral battle for the BJP.
Development versus discontent
If Gujarat were a country, its recession (fall from 2nd rank to 10th) would have been a global headline. Just before its descent in 2014, Gujarat (10 million-plus population) clocked the third-fastest growth rate in the world, after China and South Korea.
Powered by its industrial legacy, coastal geography and private capital, Gujarat's annual Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) growth from 2001 to 2013 averaged nearly 10 per cent, which is faster than that of India's. With only six per cent of India's land mass and barely five per cent of its population, Gujarat has grabbed 7.6 per cent of the country's GDP and 22 per cent of its exports.
However, with the downturn, the Gujarat's growth turned its biggest nightmare.
Economies driven by the manufacturing turbo are bound to suffer worst in the recession compared to services- or agriculture-based economies. The economic slowdown in Gujarat is faster and widespread than India, akin to its growth story.
The unemployment is more severe in Gujarat than other non-manufacturing economies in India. The economic slide (2013) of Gujarat and launch of Hardik Patel's Patidar movement are contemporary. The GST and demonetisation unleashed havoc on Gujarat's business reeling under recession and forced the BJP to bite the GST bullet before facing the electorate.
Charisma versus crisis
Gujarat's charisma is not as much about industrial exuberance as it is about agricultural renaissance.
The State's agricultural and allied sector has outperformed its peers in the last decade by registering an average annual growth of 11 per cent, compared to a national average of three per cent between 2001-2002 and 2011-2012.
However since 2013, the state's agriculture also witnessed a headwind owing to bad weather and vagaries of the market. This slide came against the backdrop of the state's social sector's performance remaining conventional, despite its exceptional economic growth.
Urban Gujarat, which is somehow managing its affairs amid slowdown, has nothing to offer to the beleaguered rural hinterland. No surprise that rural Gujarat became the biggest challenge for the BJP in this elections.
And the uprising
Unlike the rest of India, Modi's Gujarat witnessed unprecedented agitations in the past three years. Most of the agitations were spontaneous and driven by youth, farmers and traders - the socio-economic classes badly hit by recession.
This is not the Gujarat of 2012. This is what is different about the state this time.
Gujarat hosts tremendous complexity of economic, social and political factors in its small geography. The nerve-racking economic slowdown has made it even more complicated.
Gujarat is witnessing one of the rarest electoral fights between concurrent economic factors versus conventional polity. Whatever the result may be, for the first time in India, a foremost industrial state will tell us how people vote while they are reeling under economic slump and unemployment.