A resurgent Congress will have to build further on its campaign momentum to take on the BJP
If a week is a long time in politics, then two and half months are an eternity. In the first half of August, when Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) conducted the first round of its pre-election Tracker in Gujarat, it seemed as though the election to the Legislative Assembly was going to be yet another cakewalk for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has been in power in the State since 1998. The survey found a 30 percentage point vote gap between the BJP and the Congress, quite similar to the one seen during the 2014 Lok Sabha election. However, in the second round of the Tracker conducted in October, post-Deepavali, we found the BJP’s advantage to have plummeted to a mere six points. This dramatic change makes us wonder whether the electoral race is headed for a photo finish in a month’s time. The answer to that will only be known on December 18, the counting date. But what we can say with some confidence at this stage is that even though the BJP continues to be ahead, the momentum has shifted, and shifted quite strongly towards the Congress. If the party is able to build on it in the next three to four weeks of campaigning, it may well end up posing a very serious challenge to the BJP in the home State of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president, Amit Shah.
A major reason for the Congress to have come back from so far behind is the support for it from the Patidar, or Patel, community, no less than two-thirds of whom have voted for the BJP in the past several elections, as per Lokniti surveys. In August, it had seemed business as usual as the BJP was ahead by 58 points among Patel voters. However, this margin is down to just 20 points. That Hardik Patel, who is leading the Patel movement for reservations and now calling for the BJP’s defeat, was found to be liked by two in every three Patels in the survey might make matters worse for the ruling party. Our survey indicates that the Congress may have actually pulled ahead in the Saurashtra and North Gujarat regions, partly due to the backing of the Patidars who account for about 12-15% of the electorate. While the challenge for the Congress is to hold on to this new-found support for the next month, the BJP is expected to go all out to bring these disenchanted voters back into its fold. The ruling party has experience in managing Patel discontent, having faced a rebellion by dissident BJP leader and former Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel twice in the past.
Meanwhile Thakor, Kshatriya, Koli and Dalit voters, who have traditionally voted for the Congress in sizeable proportions but had crossed over to the BJP in 2014, have gradually started returning to the Congress fold. This may partly be due to the party’s roping in of the founder of the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (OSS) Ekta Manch and the Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena, Alpesh Thakor, and the lawyer and activist, Jignesh Mewani, on its side. Muslims too are rallying behind the party. Where the Congress seems to be floundering at the moment, however, is on the Adivasi front. Adivasis, who are concentrated in several districts across central and south Gujarat, seem to be deserting the party. This is significant as even during the wave election of 2014 when the Congress lost in all 26 Lok Sabha seats, a large section of Adivasis were firmly behind it. It is quite possible that Congress’s aggressive courting of Patel, OBC and Dalit leaders is alienating its core Adivasi voters who could be feeling left out in the caste calculations. Gujarat has 27 reserved Scheduled Tribe seats (out of 182) and the BJP would be hoping to gain many in order to make up for losses elsewhere. It had managed to win only 10 in 2012.
It is not just caste but the economic condition of voters that could also determine how they vote. Over half the respondents (54%) in our survey said that they are finding it difficult to make ends meet with their current household income. This sentiment is predominant across communities with the exception of the upper castes and, to some extent, the Patels. Moreover, in every community, even the dominant ones, those who reported financial hardship were found to be leaning toward the Congress. For instance, even among the upper castes, staunch backers of the BJP, a plurality of those who said they were facing economic difficulties were found to be supporting Congress.
Demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) may also be affecting the BJP’s popularity. Two in every five respondents said the GST was a bad decision. In August, one in every four had viewed it as such. Outright support for demonetisation has also fallen, from over half to a third. Significantly, 44% of respondents said they knew someone whose business or job had been badly affected on account of the two measures. Not surprisingly, the BJP’s advantage over the Congress among traders has reduced to just four points. Adding to people’s economic woes is the problem of price rise and unemployment. For 19% of those surveyed, inflation will be the most important voting issue; for 11%, a lack of jobs, and for 10%, poverty. The sense we get is that the election outcome will also be determined by economic concerns.
The Congress’s focus on farmers and youth through its campaign slogan, “Yuva Rozgaar, Khedut Adhikaar,” and its party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s constant focus on this message in his speeches seems to be bearing fruit. Half the farmers and nearly as many youngsters were found to be backing the party. Interestingly, three-fourths of the youth have heard of “Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe”, the social media trend that mocks the BJP’s developmental claims. However, the Congress is struggling to make headway among women in cities, the majority of whom strongly back the BJP.
The personal popularity of Mr. Modi, who visited the State several times before the announcement of the elections, seems to have declined (from four-fifths in August to two-thirds in October), but he still remains far more popular than any other leader from the Congress camp.
What should be cause for concern within the BJP is the drastic decline in satisfaction levels with Mr. Modi’s government. In May this year, when Lokniti had conducted a poll in Gujarat as part of a national study, three-fourths of voters had expressed satisfaction with the Central government’s performance. That came down to two-thirds in August, and has now further declined to just a little over half. Satisfaction levels with the government of Chief Minister Vijay Rupani too have seen a similar decline.
What should worry the BJP is the creation of a pro-Congress hawa, or mood. Our survey found a near equal perception among voters about the prospects of both parties winning. With its “Congress Aave Chhe (Congress is coming)” campaign, the party is beginning to significantly dent the BJP’s aura of invincibility. This building of a hawa, or vatavaran as it’s called in Gujarat, could dictate voter preferences at the voting booth, more so for those who are still deciding or leaning toward smaller parties. But for the Congress to cause an upset, this hawa cannot be restricted to only some parts of the State, as is the case now. Moreover, a hawa alone may not be enough to defeat the BJP in its bastion. It will have to get stronger and become an aandhi (storm).