This political analysis was first published here.
Post BJP’s dismal performance in large swathes of rural Gujarat, one could be prompted to believe that the party faces not just a resurgent Congress, especially aided by the Bihar steroid, but also a detached, fatigued and unhappy electorate in the run-up to December 2017 state elections.
With Congress capturing 23 of the 31 Zilla (District) Panchayats and 132 Taluka (Block) Panchayats, it indeed sounds like a significant come back story of a party that has been moribund in the state for most part of the last two decades. GSTV, the news TV channel of Gujarat’s leading news daily Gujarat Samachar declared: “Gujarat Congress comes out of ICU.”
That headline should be seen as a sober one on a day that was always going to be about media reaching for the hyperboles.
The performance elated Congress supporters (includes most of English news media personalities) enough to go for the Twitter trend #CongressSweepsRuralGujarat.
The hashtag, however, not only speaks well about the statistics that suit it but also the big picture of the state viz., “Congress sweeps rural Gujarat … (but please don’t ask us about rest of Gujarat)”.
Congress supporters are talking only of rural performance because in one of India’s most urbanised (43%, as per 2011 census) states, BJP won all the six municipal corporations that went to the November 2015 polls – five of them with convincing margins.
Two of those are municipal bodies of Surat and Rajkot – the principal funding bowl of Hardik Patel led (and allegedly Congress and multiple NGOs aided) ‘Patidar Anamat Andolan’ (A mass – and often violent – protest by the Patel caste/community for reservation in education and employment), and the historical, absolute stronghold of Patel community respectively.
While BJP, admittedly, barely scraped through in Rajkot (38/72), it sailed through emphatically (80/116) in Surat, where electoral mapping revealed that it won all the three Lok Sabha and nine Vidhan Sabha constituencies.
In the largest city of the state, Ahmedabad, BJP’s performance was nothing short of a stunning repeat, winning 142 seats out of 192 (151 in 2010).
The BJP’s performance in the remaining three biggest urban centres Baroda (56/76), Bhavnagar (34/52) and Jamnagar (38/64) was equally convincing.
Even better is the performance in 56 Nagarpalikas (Town Councils), where BJP bagged 42. Congress won just 10 Nagarpalikas.
That makes for a BJP control over 48 of the 62 most populous city and town councils of Gujarat.
In other words: The Gujarat local bodies election results has actually thrown up a picture that responds differently from different angles, but is mostly what you want it to be. Trust a community that has business in its veins to keep everyone happy, eh?
Now let’s look into the circumstances in which the elections took place:
First, no issue had found the BJP on as much a slippery ground as the recent ‘Patidar Andolan’. Capping the simmering socio-political pot for over an year, thousands of Patel community members in Ahmedabad and Mehsana districts left the BJP to join the Congress just before elections on November 26.
Mehsana, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birth district, as it turned out, almost completely wiped BJP off the district panchayat map.
Such was the impact of the agitation that the ruling BJP government, despite having 40 Patel community lawmakers and a Patel chief minister, was scared to go all out politically against the protest. At least one sitting legislator had openly rebelled against the party and joined the protest group, while there were murmurs of discontent among the rest of the Patel MLAs. Most feared being ostracized from their own community for not going against the state government, which, on many occasions, emphatically refused to extend reservation to the Patidar/Patel community.
In the end, the entire campaigning was more or less handled single-handedly by Chief Minister Anandiben Patel. Let’s read that again: Single-handedly.
But she could do only so much. In the absence of any other alternative, the angry Patels either boycotted the elections or voted en masse in favour of Congress. In other words, Congress benefited hugely due to the anger of Patels towards BJP and not necessarily because of its own appeal.
Second, the chief minister ended up fighting a lonely battle also because of the proximity of the Gujarat local elections to the Bihar elections, wherein both BJP national chief Amit Shah and the prime minister, both from Gujarat, had invested heavy political and personal capital – and had no time left for this elections. Neither would’ve directly campaigned for what is after all local council elections, but could’ve helped more with strategy and show of support and encouragement for the cadre that has been left bemused by spectacular failings in Delhi and Bihar.
For a local like me, it would be difficult to explain the significance of the aforementioned factor to ‘national’ news media experts. For the first time in over two decades, the Gujarat BJP cadre had neither Narendra Modi nor Amit Shah around. It was a completely new experience, amid a completely new set of crisis circumstances.
On the other hand, the Congress cadre was infused with a renewed vigour due to the party’s surprisingly good showing in Bihar. Riding the Bihar euphoria was the fresh legs of new Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee Chief Bharat Sinh Solanki, a former union minister and son of former Gujarat chief minister and party heavyweight Madhav Sinh Solanki. He is said to have acted like a friend of all the workers and volunteers and kept positive energy floating in the camp despite the state-wide party structure being dysfunctional.
Third, and a very big reason for the results in rural areas is farmers’ protest against the union and state governments for their failure to ensure adequate market prices for their produce, especially the two main cash crops – cotton and groundnut. Even the RSS affiliated farmers body Bharatiya Kisaan Sangh (BKS) has gone against the state government on the issue. Though the agitation dates back to last year, things got particularly worse this year.
Gujarat Agriculture Department officials say that because of erratic rain in 2015, the production of cotton is likely to fall short of average produce by 2.7 lakh tonnes and groundnut by nearly 4.5 lakh tonnes.
With the state government refusing to declare drought in the state, which could enable special relief packages, and the union government not increasing the minimum support price for cotton, anger has been running high recently in Gujarat’s hinterland. And it got reflected in the results.
A silver lining for the BJP was found in more than a dozen villages choosing to simply boycott the elections rather than vote for Congress or others.
And mind you, this also acted as the most fertile ground for ‘Patidar Andolan’. It takes people of all kinds to make a city, but a village is often about more of the same. In other words, the caste/community spirit trumps all in a rural setting. So, amid deficient rainfall led agrarian difficulties, Patel caste dominated areas turned into an absolute no-go areas for BJP.
Last heard, the Gujarat government had constituted a ministerial committee to prepare a report on the impact of poor monsoon on the state’s farmers. All rightey!
Can a Congress administration in Zilla Panchayats’ solve those farmer problems? The farmers’ stand is more a statement of anger against the BJP and not much an approval rating for the Congress.
And going back to the previous pain areas: Is the Patel reservation protest going to sustain itself till 2017? Seems unlikely; the ‘leader’ is currently in jail, discredited for asking his community members to kill policemen. The entire community was anyway never behind the protest.
Further, is 2017 going to see the Chief Minister fight a lonely battle again? Impossible, obviously. The entire might of the BJP machinery, including both Amit Shah and the prime minister, apart from allied forces like the RSS and VHP would be out again to retain their most proud citadel.
The current local election was an occasion when the iron was hottest for Congress party to strike. A host of sudden and severe circumstances had besieged a BJP that has to now continually face anti-incumbency for its long rule in the state. Worse, the elections featured a BJP that was wary, cagey and on the defensive on all fronts.
That the BJP could still manage to stand on its feet in rural Gujarat and best Congress by good margins in the urban and semi-urban areas of one of India’s most urbanised states augurs well for BJP.