The seemingly aggressive Congress posture in Gujarat has made the BJP sit up and take notice.
The BJP knows the symbolic importance of winning Gujarat, and hence will throw the kitchen sink to win it, if needed.
A lot has been made out of the recent aggression that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and his band of merry congressmen and women have shown in their campaign in Gujarat. The special focus on Gujarat has meant that the Gandhis and the Congress party pretty much delegated the election campaigning in Himachal to the octogenarian Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.
The Son Rises Once Again…
In the last one month, the mainstream media has been going gaga over the punchlines and the full-frontal attack on government policies by Gandhi. The narrative of a young leader picking up the cudgels against the electoral juggernaut of BJP has been shaped in the image of a David vs Goliath contest.
However, beyond the usual media narrative of overstating Congress’s electoral strength, the routine of Rahul Gandhi playing to the gallery seems to be tried and tested, unsuccessfully if one may add. However, beyond the social media rhetoric, this aggressive campaigning by the Gandhi scion is also a signal to the Congress party’s withering cadre that the president-in-waiting is happy to be in a tough political scuffle, if needed.
…But Where Is The Beef?
However, the rhetoric of campaigning may not necessarily match the ground realities. Since 1990, Congress has failed to do well electorally in Gujarat. Barring a brief interim in 2009 parliamentary elections, the Congress has been a poor number two in the state’s political pecking order.
This is rather easy to show. In a two-party state such as Gujarat, having a relatively high vote share (Congress got close to 40 per cent votes in 2012 Assembly elections) may still amount to a big defeat. For Congress, the core area of strength has largely come from a set of 90-100 seats, where its vote share has been at least 40 per cent or above since 2002. In contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has consistently won 40 per cent or above vote share in almost 150 odd seats out of the 182 constituencies, giving it a much larger presence.
Hence, there is a pool of about 50 seats which the BJP and Congress fight over, where the winning margin was less than 5 per cent in the 2012 elections, of which Congress won 27 seats, while BJP, 22. In fact, if the margin is narrowed further to 3 per cent, Congress would have managed to scrape through on 22 out of the 35 seats decided on the small margin, thus making its underlying position weaker right from the beginning.
Is This Time Really Different?
While Congress loves to work with the “this time is the same” theory, it is fervently hoping that the time is different for its fortunes in Gujarat with the aggressive pitch made by Rahul Gandhi slamming the goods and services tax (GST) and the demonetisation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as ‘historic blunders’. While demonisation of demonetisation has broadly failed on the electoral front, the GST itself seems to be the wrong bogey to raise for a state like Gujarat.
First, Gujarat has always been a producer state, and while there are lingering concerns about revenue losses, the central government’s promise to guarantee any revenue loss for five years pretty much takes the sheen out of any issues. Second, unlike other states, Gujarat and its large manufacturing industry stands to gain significantly from the GST, since the overall taxation the state and its industries paid to the central government will decline significantly, given the non-cascading nature of GST. While there are issues around filing, overall taxation for industries operating out of Gujarat (automobiles, petrochemicals, textiles) will mostly decline, and the recent changes around the gems and jewellery industry will further lower any negative impact.
Finally, a point well avoided by Gandhi has been the underlying economic performance of Gujarat itself. Since Modi’s arrival at the centre, Gujarat’s growth rate has actually accelerated, after a period of brief lull in Modi’s last term. Hence economic disenchantment is something that may not be front and centre of Gujarat’s mind. In fact, despite the lack of charismatic leadership, Gujarat appears to be well managed and almost on an ‘auto-pilot’ mode, which may not necessarily win a lot of incremental votes, but may not also deduct votes from the BJP itself.
What About The Caste Arithmetic?
A lot has been made of Congress’s flirtations with the ‘young leaders’ of Gujarat’s recent caste-driven agitations. Similar to the past, the media has played up the relative importance of the Patels, the other backward class (OBC) groups and even the Dalit agitations. However, the sequence of these agitations was broadly in response to each other, rather than a complementary chain of events. As such, the inherent contradictions of finding favour from all three leaders may not necessarily work out given there could be issues in ticket distribution, and mobilisation of support. In particular, the Patel experiment did play out in 2012, when Keshubhai Patel had broken away from the BJP, but had failed to make a dent.
It is also a bit surprising that despite being a large number two in the state, Congress seems to be putting a lot of emphasis on attracting the support of untested entities. Similar experiments in the past have hardly worked out, as BJP found out in Bihar, when it backed the outfit led by Jitan Ram Manjhi.
BJP Might Be Working Too Hard
While last few elections in Gujarat have made the headlines for the personality contest between the Gandhis and Modi, it has not necessarily been devoid of local issues. Further, Modi has had a track record of going into Gujarat polls having taken tough decisions, such as disconnecting electricity connections of defaulters before heading out to the polls. Hence he is unlikely to be perturbed by the GST implementation or the demonetisation issues raised by the Congress party.
If anything, the recent surge in Congress’ ‘popularity’ in Gujarat has made the BJP stand up and take notice, and Modi has added multiple rallies to his calendar for next month, before elections are scheduled. Further, BJP can still wrongfoot the Congress as far its ticket distribution is concerned, given prospects of defections and multiple contests. Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah know the symbolic importance of winning Gujarat, and hence they will throw the kitchen sink to win it, if needed.