The Gujarat Assembly elections are bound to generate excitement, being the home state of Narendra Modi. Like any other state in India, caste and religion, apart from issues such as GST, demonetisation, economic development will be the main factors in determining the outcome of the election.
The major social groups in the state are 7% Dalits; 9% Muslims; 15% tribals; Darbars and Rajputs, combined with 11% Thakores (OBCs) are around 16%. The total is 47%, and these constitute the main social base of the Congress. In any Gujarat election, the actual polling percentage of SCs, Muslims and tribals is at least 8-10% higher than other social groups. Patidars (16%) with urban upper castes (10%) like Banias, Brahmins and Jains, totalling around 26%, comprise the traditional support base of the BJP. Other castes including non Thakore OBCs are 27% and decide the outcome of the elections.
The Congress is feeling enthused by the Patidars’ perceived disenchantment with BJP due to the death of 14 Patidars in police action during a job quota agitation led by Hardik Patel; and because it thinks the urban upper castes have been affected by demonetisation and GST. Congress strategists have convinced Rahul Gandhi that the three young faces, namely, Alpesh Thakor, Jignesh Mevani and Hardik Patel representing OBCs, SCs and Patidars, respectively, will result in victory in Gujarat, leading to a possible defeat of Modi in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019. They feel that Hardik Patel’s support will substantially add Patidar voters to Congress’ kitty, while narrowing the BJP’s support base. These strategists seem to have succeeded in selling this hypothesis to the Delhi based “liberal and secular English media” as well, thus making them ecstatic.
However, caste equations in Gujarat do not work in such a straight-forward manner. Alpesh, a Thakore, and Jignesh, a radical Bhambi Dalit, do not bring any real value addition to the Congress, with both castes being Congress supporters. In fact, Jignesh’s open support to Congress may deter all castes other than Bhambi Dalits, from voting for Congress because of his radical background. Similarly, the Patidars will not support the Congress if the Kshatriyas are supporting it, and vice versa, because of their inherent hostility.
Though the Patidars have genuine reasons to be annoyed with BJP, but they are also the biggest beneficiaries of the economic development during BJP rule. So it is doubtful if the majority of them will vote for Congress. In Gujarat, there is also a perception that the emergence of the Patidar agitation was the result of BJP’s internal power struggle, but was not intended to weaken the party. With top Congress leaders being Kshatriyas, the prospect of a Kshatriya becoming the Chief Minister in case Congress comes to power, will deter the Patidars from voting for the party. I have a feeling that Hardik is a deliberate trap laid by BJP, ensuring that he publicly declares support for Congress, thus confusing Kshatriyas and Thakores.
Shankarsinh Vaghela is the tallest Kshatriya leader in the state. He recently left the Congress and floated his own Jan Vikalp Party. He has a better hold on Kshtariya voters than Bharat Solanki or Shaktisinh Gohil, the two top Congress leaders in the state, especially in north and central Gujarat. His group is likely to win five-plus seats, besides spoiling Congress’ chances in several constituencies.
Over the years, BJP has successfully wooed non-Thakore OBCs, non-Bhambi SCs, besides a substantial chunk of tribals of South Gujarat. Anecdotal evidence shows that the poor and lower middle classes are not unhappy with demonetisation, whereas GST has not been viewed negatively by people other than the trading classes and those who were profiting from tax evasion. Unnoticed by the media, social security schemes such as PM’s life insurance and pension schemes, Ujjawala scheme and rural electrification have created a mass support base for BJP among the poor and lower middle classes. Congress emphasising too much on Patidars may result in consolidating the OBCs, including Thakores, in favour of BJP.
Most Muslims, who perceive Modi as their ideological enemy, have no choice but to support Congress. The majority of Muslims in Gujarat are artisans and skilled workers. Muslims from the lower and middle classes have been the biggest beneficiaries of the state’s speedy economic development in a riot free atmosphere in the past 15 years in a state notorious for recurring communal riots. Even then, BJP is unlikely to get 10% of Muslim votes. But being concentrated in a small number of constituencies, Muslims have a limited capacity to impact the overall results.
Being aware that Patidars are unlikely to support Congress unless an impression is created that the party is not a vociferous supporter of Muslims, Rahul has been advised to avoid uttering even one word on secularism and minorities. Here again, by and large, Gujaratis are aware that if Congress wins majority, it will be “these advisers” who will hold the remote of the government. There is widespread fear that this will bring back the dreaded Mafia and the underworld to the state.
The BJP should not take the state for granted. 22 years of anti-incumbency, coupled with some drift in the state administration after Modi moved to the Centre and the economic slowdown are factors that may dampen public enthusiasm for BJP. It has been seen that pro BJP voters, instead of voting for a rival party, prefer to abstain from polling when annoyed. In a bi-polar contest, polling percentage is a great indicator of the winner. If it crosses 52%, BJP is bound to get a majority. If it reaches 55%, BJP will cross the 100-mark and every additional 1% will add three seats to it tally.
Rajinder Kumar is a former Special Director of Intelligence Bureau and an expert on Pakistan. He has worked in Gujarat for a substantial period of time.