New Delhi: A close look at the Gujarat assembly election results indicates that there was not wholehearted support for the BJP, but smart micro-management finally led to the party’s victory. While the BJP finishing with less than 100 seats points to the lack of overwhelming support, the result definitely shows that the party has cracked the electoral formula.
Amit Shah, who was overseeing the election machinery from the background, will be given credit for neutralising the heat that his party faced through multiple tactics. Although Shah, in his press conference, attributed the party’s “politics of performance” as opposed to Congress’ “politics of casteism, dynasticism and appeasement” for the Gujarat victory, the slender margin with which BJP won the poll suggests otherwise.
For him, micromanagement was about two tactics integral to the BJP’s plan of action. One, he concentrated on winning 100-odd seats in the non-Patidar assembly segments along the border districts, which have a good mix of castes and communities, unlike those in the central regions of northern Gujarat and Saurashtra where Patidars rule the roost.
That is what the Gujarat verdict reflects. While in central Saurashtra districts like Morbi, Surendranagar, Amreli, Botad, Junagarh and so on – all Patidar-dominated – the Congress decimated the BJP, it was the specific seats in Saurashtra’s districts like Bhavnagar, Porbandar and Jamnagar, with a substantial chunk of OBC caste groups like Koli Patels, Mers, Prajapati and Lohanas, that the BJP won.
Similarly, in northern Gujarat, the party did not seem to focus on seats like Unjha, Patan, Siddhpur and so on, which had become the centre of the Patidar agitation. Here the Congress won comfortably. But the saffron party concentrated more on seats where the Patidar influence could be neutralised by consolidating other groups. For instance, its good performance in many seats in the Adivasi-dominated districts of Sabarkantha, Panch Mahal, Dahod, Aravalli and Banaskantha shows that the BJP election machinery’s focus worked correctly for the party.
Along with this, it focused attention on 42 strictly urban seats, where it did exceedingly well. The Congress lost in these constituencies with huge margins.
A BJP leader had told The Wire that the party has chosen around 50 seats in rural areas where it intends to neutralise Patidar discontent by consolidating other caste groups on a Hindutva plank. This seems to have worked well in driving the BJP’s win home.
Two, Shah ensured that Congress heavyweights lose the elections and the saffron party’s important leaders beat the local anti-incumbency. This the BJP did by fielding numerous independent candidates who could cut into the Congress’s votes. For example, in Patidar-dominated Mehsana, where the deputy chief minister Nitin Patel won with a margin of less than 8,000 votes, there were more than 20 independent candidates who got more than 10,000 votes together. Most of these candidates were from the Thakor and Muslim communities, who traditionally prefer the Congress
Similarly, in Ahmedabad’s Dholka, where cabinet minister Bhupendra Chudasama defeated his Congress rival by only around 300 votes, there were eight independent candidates from communities which generally vote Congress.
While Shah ensured the party’s state leaders won, he also worked towards defeating the known Congress faces in Gujarat. While in Porbandar, Congress leader Arjun Modhwadiya lost in a tightly-fought battle with BJP heavyweight Babu Bokhiriya by less than 2,000 votes, around four independents allegedly fielded by the BJP got more than 2,000 votes.
Same is the case with another Congress leader Shakti Sinh Gohil’s defeat. The margin of his defeat (around 9,000 votes) was less than what the 11 independent candidates secured.
The top Patidar leaders in the Congress, like Paresh Dhanani, won on their respective seats.
Three, the party’s deliberate whipping up of Hindutva sentiment, along with invoking Gujarati asmita (pride) in the last leg of the campaign, in urban areas not only energised its core voters, but also polarised a large section of the Hindu electorate against Muslims. This move was aimed at appeasing Hindus and deflecting their attention away from pertinent economic and social concerns.
The party specifically focused on urban areas, as it had little hope that Hindutva would work amidst widespread rural discontent over a severe farming crisis. That rural Gujarat did not get polarised on religious lines is reflected in the fact that the Congress performed quite well in seats like Junagarh, Radhanpur, Wankaner and many others where the Muslim population is substantial and yet the Hindus voted Congress.
Four, the party’s last-minute push to engage traders and merchants in urban areas seems to have worked. In Surat’s 16 seats, which had seen big protests against the central government’s decision to implement the Goods and Services Tax, Hindus across caste and communities voted for the BJP in huge numbers, despite showing their anger against the party. Many of their concerns were addressed. Similar tactics were adopted by the party in Vadodara and Ahmedabad. In all these largely-prosperous districts, the BJP did well.
A mix of these tactics, along with an aggressive booth management mechanism, show that the result in Gujarat is not a mandate for “politics of performance” as claimed by Shah. Instead, it shows how the BJP smartly worked its way around the narrative of anti-incumbency and appeased disenchanted communities to bring them into its fold.
The Gujarat verdict in favour of the BJP is largely due to the rich and urban middle classes voting for it. Along with the urban-rural divide, the other contradiction that emerged in the result is one of affluent versus the poor. In that sense, class more than caste considerations played a significant role. Why the poor wanted to vote out the BJP is something that the party will have to look into, especially when Prime Minister Modi leaves no opportunity to stress that his government is a “garibon ki sarkaar (poor people’s government)”.