Eight tenures, four chief ministers, and 21 years later, the challenge in Gujarat for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), famous for being in the election mode across the year, emerges not from the opposition, but within itself .
Ahead of the 2022 assembly elections, and the 2024 national elections, how does the party sustain its victory parade in a state that has seen nothing but the BJP for more than two decades? How does the party cater to the younger generations, wired to vote for change in the name of youthful exuberance? How does it ensure it does not let the anti-incumbency factor settle in the political discourse?
Much of it must have weighed on the minds of the BJP leadership at the Centre for the last few months. The smooth transition of power from Vijay Rupani to Bhupendra Patel, a first-time member of legislative assembly (MLA) from Ghatlodiya, a seat previously held by former chief minister Anandiben Patel, was not a spur of the moment call, but something that had been in the works for months.
The only challenge for the BJP here was to time it right, for the Covid-19 pandemic came with its own political baggage. Anytime before May, and the decision would have been a reflection of Covid management in the state, and anytime later than this year could have left the party looking desperate in the face of elections.
The opposition, mainly Congress, in the state has been an abysmal failure as well. While the Congress did dent the vote share of the BJP, especially in rural Gujarat, in the 2017 elections, they did not build upon the momentum. In 2019, Congress registered embarrassing defeats from all 26 Lok Sabha seats with the winning margin for the BJP ranging between 127,000 votes in Dahod and 690,000 in Navsari.
A recall of the 2017 elections is warranted, however, for the elevation of Patel belonging to the Patidar community does have a lot to do with the trends that were witnessed back then.
The 2017 assembly elections were Congress’s best bet to debut in the state since 1995. Narendra Modi was not contesting, and the anti-incumbency factor was huge.
This was supplemented by the Patidar agitation under Hardik Patel, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) aligning with Alpesh Thakore, and the Dalits aligning with Jignesh Mevani, all voicing their concerns against the BJP. Demonetisation and the then recently launched goods and services tax (GST) was also weighing on the mind of the business community, a core vote bank for the BJP.
The impact was clearly reflected in the declining vote share of the BJP, down to 49.1 per cent from 60.11 per cent in 2014. The Congress registered a surprising rise from 33 per cent in 2014 to 41.4 per cent in 2017. However, in 2019, BJP went back to its old ways, registered 62.21 per cent vote share while Congress could not even exceed its 2014 performance.
The Patidars, making up for around 15 per cent of the population in the state, are critical to at least 50 of the 182 seats in the assembly. In 2017, BJP won 27 and Congress won 23. Seats where the Scheduled Caste (SC) vote was a critical factor, Congress presented a tough fight to the BJP, winning five out of 13 seats. In Scheduled Tribes' (STs) dominated seats, around 25 of them, Congress won 16.
However, the impact of GST and demonetisation before that was neutralised, with BJP registering strong seat share in the urban areas, winning 42 out of 48 seats in the cities. Perhaps, it was this success in urban areas that saved BJP from the dents in the rural areas, given that of the 134 seats in the rural and semi-urban areas, Congress won 71.
So, what does Bhupendra Patel bring to the table?
Firstly, it will be critical in consolidating the Patidar vote in the absence of any strong opposition, thus denting the prospects of Hardik Patel. Jignesh Mewani has been discredited by the Bhima Koregaon episode while Alpesh Thakore has switched loyalties to the BJP. Factoring in the results of the 2019 national elections and 2021 local body elections, one can assume that other social factions will also align with the BJP.
Thus, the rural vote BJP lost in 2017 will come back in 2022, the indicator of which can be seen in the local body elections earlier this year where BJP swept all the 31 district panchayats.
Two, it will only add to the miseries of the Congress, given the Aam Aadmi Party, buoyed by its performance in Surat’s local body elections, would want to test its fortunes in Gujarat.
However, Arvind Kejriwal’s party from Delhi will only eat into the vote share of the Congress, further deteriorating the leverage enjoyed by Hardik Patel. It would be interesting to see if the Congress stalwarts including Bharatsinh Solanki, Arjun Modhwadia and Shaktisinh Gohil will also continue to endure the arrogant, confrontational, and brazen ways of Hardik Patel, for the 'Patel' leverage is now gone.
More than a course correction, Bhupendra Patel’s elevation marks the beginning of a new era for the BJP in Gujarat.
With a clean slate and a new cabinet, connection to the grassroots with simultaneous proximity to the business groups, Patel, in his words, would aim to take everyone together. For the BJP, this is the ideal point to set the agenda for the next 10 years in Gujarat that caters to the expectations of the young voters, business communities, and once alienated rural factions.
The next transition for BJP Gujarat must be out of Narendra Modi's shadows and towards embarking on the legacy he has left behind in the state.
The Congress, meanwhile, after struggling with power transitions in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and most recently, in Punjab, could draw a few lessons from the BJP, and look at strengthening the cadre in other states, for Gujarat is firmly with the BJP, even after 21 years, and perhaps, for the next 10.
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