The term of the current Gujarat Assembly will expire on 22 January 2018 and the Election Commission has declared that voting for electing the new Assembly will be held before December 18 this year.
The ruling BJP exudes confidence about returning to power for 5th consecutive term. The opposition Congress, on the other hand, fancies its chances of making a comeback to the corridors of power in the aftermath of Narendra Modi moving out of the state politics after taking over as the Prime Minister of the country.
The question is – which way the political wind is blowing in Gujarat, the land of stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Morarji Desai and Narendra Modi?
Direct contest between BJP and Congress
A look at the performance of various political parties in Gujarat gives a clear indication that the state has been witnessing a direct contest between the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress since 1995.
The BJP has won every Assembly election in the state since 1995. However, its first term could not last for long owing to the rebellion of Shankarsinh Vaghela who later formed his separate outfit Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) and formed government with the support of the Congress in 1996.
However, the BJP once again bounced back to power in 1998 Assembly elections and is ruling the state till date although it has changed its chief ministers many a times owing to changing political equations.
The Congress which ruled Gujarat for a long time, like many other Indian states, has not won any Assembly election since 1990 when it lost out to Chimanbhai Patel-led alliance of JD(U) and BJP.
The BJP emerged as the main challenger to the Congress by 1995 and the saffron party grabbed the power under the leadership of Keshubhai Patel in the Assembly polls held that year.
The BJP once again won the 1998 Assembly elections and Keshubhai returned as the Chief Minister. However, he was made to make way for Narendra Modi in October 2001 as a result of BJP’s plummeting popularity and consequent defeats in Assembly bypolls.
Narendra Modi took over as the Chief Minister of Gujarat on 7 October 2001 and continued to rule the state till 22 May 2014 when he resigned after leading the BJP to historic win in 2014 parliamentary elections.
In terms of strength in the Assembly, the BJP has been continually winning 115-127 seats in 182-member House since 1995. It won 121 seats in 1995, 117 seats in 1998, 127 seats in 2002, 117 seats in 207 and 115 seats in 2012 Assembly elections.
The Congress, on the other hand, has not crossed the figure of 61 in the state Assembly since 1995. The party won 45 seats in 1995, 53 seats in 1998, 51 seats in 2002, 59 seats in 2007 and 61 seats in 2012.
In terms of vote share, the BJP has clearly maintained its numero-uno position in the state. The saffron party secured almost 50% votes in 2002 and 2007 Assembly elections. It garnered 42.51% votes in 1995, 44.81% in 1998, 49.85% in 2002, 49.12% in 2007 and 47.85% in 2012 Assembly polls.
The vote share of the Congress has been fluctuating between 33-39% all these years. The party garnered 32.86% votes in 1995, 34.85% in 1998, 39.28% in 2002, 38% in 2007 and 38.93% in 2012 Assembly polls.
Challenges before BJP in upcoming Assembly polls
The biggest challenge which the BJP faces in Gujarat is that its most popular and charismatic face Narendra Modi has moved out of the state politics. The very fact that the BJP has appointed two chief ministers within a short span of two years after Modi’s departure indicates that the party is struggling to find a worthy replacement of Narendra Modi in the state.
Narendra Modi’s personal charisma helped him get acceptability among powerful sections of the society who otherwise keep competing with each other for acquiring political power. Modi was acceptable to all these warring sections but after his departure the BJP is finding it tough to carry along these groups which are getting restless for not being given their pound of flesh in lieu of their support to the saffron party.The agitation by the Patel community is an example.
Another big challenge for the BJP in the state is that it is facing double anti-incumbency this time. The BJP is in power in the state as well as at the centre since 26 May 2014. Earlier, the BJP had the luxury to put the blame for its failures on the centre’s alleged non-cooperative attitude and the people believed the party most of the time. However, the party can no longer come up with this excuse.
And the Vijay Rupani-led BJP government may have to bear the brunt of that section of the society as well which is feeling offended by certain decisions taken by the Narendra Modi-led government at the centre. For instance, GST rollout has reportedly annoyed a large number of traders across the country and the BJP may have to face their anger in a state which is known for trade leadership. After winning the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had flaunted the victory as people’s approval for “demonetisation” but will Gujarat also give the party thumbs up despite being home to a larger percentage of residents employed in Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) which was badly hit by the demonetisation initiative?
The patidar agitation and the resentment amongst the Dalit community over the perceived victimisation have further added to the existing woos of the BJP.
BJP President Amit Shah, a close confidante of PM Narendra Modi, is known to be a master election strategist who micro manages each and every booth in an election. However, the political observers point out that in the absence of Narendra Modi, he will have to put extra effort to clinch a decisive victory for his party in the upcoming Assembly elections.
Can the Congress pull off victory with Narendra Modi out of state politics?
What are the chances of the Congress party in these elections. As long as Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, the grand old party never really looked in the race for power. However, the party now believes with Modi making an exit from the state politics, it has the real chance of dethroning the BJP regime in the state.
However, the Congress too has no popular face in the state who could lead them to victory in the Assembly elections. Neither its state president Bharatsinh Solanki nor Arjun Modhvadia has the charisma to mesmerise the public a la Narendra Modi.
In a major jolt to the Congress, Shankersinh Vaghela, the party’s face for a long time, left the organisation ahead of the Assembly elections. When he raised the voice of rebellion for not being made the CM candidate, the party got divided in pro- and anti-Vaghela factions. The division was at full display during the Rajya Sabha elections which veteran Congress leader Ahmed Patel somehow managed to win over.
The way Congress MLAs were lifted to Bengaluru gave ample hints of the grand old party being a deeply-divided house. Even after the departure of Vaghela, the Congress continues to be divided among different factions.
Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice-president, in a change of strategy, is trying to poach into the traditional vote bank of the BJP by playing soft Hindutva card. His recent visits to various temples in the state has been looked upon as an attempt on part of the Congress to get rid of its image of being a party that professes the politics of minority appeasement.
But can a party which lacks a credible face and is divided among groups and sub-groups manage to spring a surprise by dislodging a regime which is unbeatable for last two decades?
Role of other players
The absolute monopoly of the BJP and the virtual capitulation of the Congress in Gujarat in last two decades has led to the emergence of individuals who are now challenging the forward march of the saffron outfit.
There are at least three individuals who are campaigning at different levels for a change in regime in the state. And they are – Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakore.
Hardik Patel, who has launched the agitation demanding reservation in jobs for the powerful Patel or patidar community, has turned more and more anti-BJP with each passing day. So much so that he has been branded a Congress agent by the ruling party. Hardik Patel, however, has definitely carved out a constituency for himself among the patidar community which constitutes around 18 per cent of the population and it remains to be seen whether he succeeds in turning once committed vote bank of the BJP against the saffron party this time.
Jignesh Mevani has taken up the cause of Dalits community which has been at the receiving end of the violence at the hands of the upper castes in the state. With his clear left leanings, Jignesh is trying to queer the pitch for the BJP among the Dalit community.
Alpesh Thakore, son of a Congress leader, is trying to unite his powerful Thakore community in the name of Vyasanmukti Abhiyan (de-addiction drive). However, his political ambitions clearly came to the fore when he said during a rally in Ahmedabad on January 26 that his group will decide who the next Chief Minister of Gujarat will be.
It remains to be seen what role these three individuals play in the upcoming Assembly elections.