As Gujarat Goes To Polls Today, Can Congress Sail Through the ‘Modi Wave’ on PM’s Home Turf?

New Delhi: As India’s seven-phase Lok Sabha elections hit prime time on Tuesday with voters across 117 parliamentary constituencies from 15 states going to polls, all eyes are on Gujarat, which will cast the ballot on all its 26 seats.

Being the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah, stakes are high for the ruling party, as it faces the uphill task of remaining at the pinnacle in their home turf.

Often termed as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) “laboratory for Hindutva”, Gujarat has been the foundation of BJP’s nation-wide growth as we see it today. It is here that veteran leader LK Advani started his ‘Rath Yatra’ in 1990, setting the base for an unprecedented wave of BJP’s Hindutva indoctrination that changed the political narrative of the nation forever.

Hence, it wasn’t a surprise for many when Gujarat, a BJP bastion for more than two decades now, registered a complete whitewash in favour of the saffron party amid the ‘Modi wave’ in 2014.

Led by Modi, who contested from Vadodara in addition to Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP bagged all the 26 seats in the state with a vote-share as high as 60 per cent. Meanwhile, the main opposition Congress, despite garnering nearly 35 per cent of the popular vote, ended-up with nothing.

Even at the state assembly level, Gujarat has never given a majority to the Congress since 1990 where BJP has been at the helm of affairs for almost 24 years now. The year 1995 onwards, in every state legislative election, the electorate in Gujarat has returned a BJP government with an overwhelming three-digit majority on each occasion in the 182-seat strong Assembly. Thus, on an average the BJP has maintained a vote-share of 45 per cent, while Congress has remained at 37 per cent. During this period, the only dent in BJP’s comfortable ride in Gujarat came in 2017 state elections, when the party was reduced to double-digits (99). With 77 seats, this was the closest that the Congress came to dethrone the BJP in the state.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had pitched development as its core agenda, citing the ‘Gujarat model’ of development in its campaign to prove the point. Modi, the then PM candidate of the party, was portrayed as the face of economic progress, who the party argued, had brought prosperity to Gujarat as its chief minister and therefore, would do the same for the country as the PM.

However, political observers believe that in Gujarat, the development narrative was put on the backburner, and caste dynamics and electoral arithmetic witnessed a resurgence in the recent state elections in 2017.

The winds of change were felt with emerging leaders like Hardik Patel for Patidars, the Other Backward Castes’ (OBC) leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who gave a tough fight to the BJP.

Evidently, caste mobilisation was at the forefront. In fact, this was the first time since 1985 state elections that caste dynamics played such a pivotal role in the state. In 1985, Congress’s Madhavsingh Solanki had stormed to power via the KHAM—Kshatriyas, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslims—formula.

Moreover, the fact that these young leaders declared support for the Congress–with Alpesh Thakor eventually contesting on a Congress ticket–gave the grand old party additional boost in the run-up to the polls. However, the BJP still managed to survive the unfavourable wave and was elected for another term.

But more than a year down the line, Gujarat witnessed another political shift ahead of the 2019 general election. A number of Congress MLAs have left the party recently, with at least five of them switching over to the BJP.

Those who left includes Alpesh Thakor. Thakors account for nearly 20 per cent of the population in the state, and the OBCs in general, constitute 40 per cent of the population. Alpesh’s untimely exit, therefore, could hurt the Congress, which is hoping for a resurrection after facing a humiliating defeat in 2014.

The Patidar agitation, which started in 2015 with the demand of reservations for Patels in government jobs and admissions with an addition of the community to OBC list, has lost its steam. Sanjay Kumar, professor and director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), said that the movement is far less relevant in Gujarat at present compared to the Assembly elections in 2017.

“There is a decline in the momentum but I don’t think this going to have any impact on the electoral outcome in Gujarat or how people are likely to vote. This is not going to be an issue in the minds of the voters of Gujarat,” he said.

Hardik Patel, the firebrand Patidar leader who sprang to the scene with the movement, despite joining the Congress lately, is unable to contest as he faces conviction in a riots case, which he has appealed against. Patidars have an influence across several constituencies in the state and account for roughly 10-12 per cent of the population in the state.

Other than Patel and OBCs vote-bases, which could see a split, Adivasi, Dalits, and Muslims remain key factors for the final outcome in Gujarat.

Bellweather seats are constituencies which vote the same way as the overall winner. In other words, the constituency elects the same party/alliance which emerges as the overall winner of the Lok Sabha or state elections. Bellweather seats are a good indicator of which way the elections are going until, of course, they go against the trend.

Interestingly, Gujarat has the highest number of Bellweather constituencies and one of them is Valsad. Over the course of the last 11 general elections, Valsad has reflected the cumulative result of the entire Lok Sabha. This makes for a 100 per cent strike rate for the constituency. West Delhi constituency is the only other seat in the country which has the same record to its name.

Having a slightly lower strike at 80 per cent, the other bellweather constituencies in the state are: Banaskantha, Porbandar, Jamnagar, and Junagarh. These four constituencies have accurately reflected the overall Lok Sabha result on nine out 11 occasions since 1977.

So, while results on these seats will be interesting to look at, the constituency that’ll be more closely watched is Gandhinagar, from where Amit Shah is contesting. Shah, has replaced Advani from the seat, who represented it for five consecutive terms.