Now that paeans have been sung to Rahul Gandhi’s “moral victory” in Gujarat, it’s time to do a quick check of what the Assembly elections were really about. The truth is, Gujarat was not about Rahul Gandhi. In fact, it was not really about Congress either. It was all about the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was about anti incumbency in a state that BJP has ruled for 22 years, it was about the urban rural divide that is becoming increasingly apparent all across the country; about falling rural income; about adequate compensation not paid for land taken away because of industrialisation; about the seething unhappiness among sections of the population because of reasons including unemployment and high cost of education; and of course it was also about caste fissures, but only to a limited extent. In the end, it was not so much about demonetisation and GST, because the government assuaged traders’ anger with rate cuts and with promises of more sops in the future, the reason why even a Patidar trader hub like Surat went massively with the BJP.
This writer travelled through parts of central and north Gujarat ahead of the elections, and the talk there was not about Rahul Gandhi, even in those rural constituencies that ultimately went to the Congress. For sulking voters, it was not about bringing Congress to power. It was about “teaching the arrogant BJP a lesson”, to “bring it down to earth” since it was “flying too high”, to stop it from taking voters for granted, and so on and so forth. In short, Gujarat’s voters were either for BJP or against BJP. It was a crisis situation ready for the picking by BJP’s opponent—any opponent with a reasonable presence in the state, not necessarily Congress. And a major crisis it would have been for the BJP, had the situation not been salvaged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even then the BJP could not breach the 100-mark in a 182-member Assembly.
There is no doubt that Rahul Gandhi displayed a lot of dynamism on the campaign trail and seasoned election war horse Ashok Gehlot, with his team from Rajasthan managed to generate much media buzz around the Gandhi scion. But on the ground the grand old party could not move without using caste “leaders” such as Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor, in particular, as crutches. Dalit “leader” Jignesh Mevani played a limited role in helping Congress and it has to be seen if his influence extends beyond his seat, as he does not have the heft of either Hardik or Alpesh.
If Rahul Gandhi and Congress were Gujarat’s default option, over five-lakh angry voters would not have pressed the NOTA button, or Congress’ top Gujarat leadership would not have been wiped out in the elections. And NOTA hurt the BJP the most, with some experts in Gujarat saying that the party lost as many as 23 seats to NOTA. 1.8% of the votes going to NOTA is a very high percentage for Gujarat, they say.
Sources in Gujarat also claim that the RSS’ frontal organisations, particularly Bharatiya Kisan Sangh could not, or perhaps did not, stanch the anger among farmers in the rural areas. It was not just low MSP for cotton and groundnut that rocked BJP’s boat, but also issues like the cost of electricity, among other things. Increase of input cost was a big issue for farmers. Around Sanand, it was clear to this writer that farmers were unhappy that adequate compensation had not been given to them for the land that had been taken away for developing the local special economic zone.
In the rural areas, when the reservation issue, that is the caste factor did not get much traction, Hardik started talking about farmers’ problems, which had a major impact on the voting patterns, especially in Saurashtra and Kutch. Saurashtra is dominated by Patidars who are farmers and from all accounts, it is rural distress that took away votes from BJP, and not Hardik’s demand for reservation. Even the presence of Alpesh could not stop the Thakor vote from getting divided between BJP and Congress. So caste played a limited role in the voting.
Some reports are also coming about the saffron cadre not being as active on the ground as the BJP would have wished it to be, especially in the first phase, when Saurashtra and Kutch went to vote and when BJP took a major hit, even in the semi-urban areas of these regions. In the end, as some say, Gujarat may have become a case of BJP vs BJP, and not BJP vs Congress.