The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got 60% of votes and won all the 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat in the 2014 general elections. Things have not been smooth for the party in the post-2014 phase though.
Patidars, an influential social group, started an agitation demanding reservation in government jobs and education in mid-2015. A counter mobilisation by the Kshatriyas against this demand started under the banner of the OSS (Other Backward Classes, Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe) Ekta Manch. Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor have emerged as the leaders of these movements. Both these movements have been critical of the BJP government.
In the local body polls held in December 2015, the Congress won 23 out of 31 Zila Panchayats and 113 of 193 Taluka Panchayats. Widespread protests erupted in the state in 2016 after flogging of Dalit youth in Una District. The BJP had to replace Narendra Modi’s successor Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani took over as chief minister in August 2016.
The turn of events would suggest that BJP should be on the back-foot in the forthcoming Gujarat assembly elections. Findings of the Lokniti-Centre for Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS) tracker survey suggest otherwise. The BJP might end up with its biggest ever victory in the state.
The survey was conducted in mid-August among more than 4,000 randomly selected voters. It shows that the BJP has a 30 percentage point lead in terms of vote share over the Congress. Close to six out of 10 (59%) respondents said that they would vote for BJP while less than three in 10 (29%) said that they would vote for the Congress.
It is ironical that BJP is enjoying this lead despite relatively lower popularity ratings of its incumbent chief minister. Twenty-four percent of the respondents wanted to see Vijay Rupani as the next chief minister. This figure is low in comparison to popularity ratings of chief ministers from similar studies are conducted in other states.
However, no Congress leader from the state has even scored 2% on this question. The Congress also faces a popularity deficit in terms of the national leadership. Eighty-two percent of the voters like Narendra Modi. The figure is 48% for Rahul Gandhi.
Why is the Congress not gaining from various caste-based agitations like it could in the 2015 local body polls? Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor remain extremely popular within their respective caste groups.
Both these communities are polarized on opposite sides of the reservation debate. Sixty-three percent Patidars support OBC status for the community. Only 18% OBCs concur with the demand. Endorsing one group’s demand is likely to alienate the other. While the Congress leadership has been vocal against the government on police firing on Patidar protestors, it has been cautious on supporting the demand for reservation due to the fear of alienating OBCs. The BJP has so far managed to prevent reservations from becoming a salient issue in the elections.
The state government conducted another round of talks with Hardik Patel and other Patidar leaders last week. While the government’s offers for setting up a commission for looking into reservation demands by upper castes, withdrawing cases against Patidar youngsters, providing assistance to families of youth who were killed in police firing were welcomed by the leaders, they weren’t enough to make them suspend their movement. How the reservation issue plays out in the election may depend on whether Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor’s organizations extend support to any party. Until now, both leaders have kept their cards close to their chest and clarity on their position is expected in the new few weeks.
As of now, the Congress only enjoys a lead among Dalits and Muslims over the BJP. Even among these two groups, the BJP has made significant inroads. As compared to the 2012 election, the BJP’s vote share among Dalits and Muslims has increased by 16 and 7 percentage points, respectively. Despite, high awareness about the Una incident, the Congress has failed to consolidate support among the Dalits.
If these trends remain stable until December, the Congress could face its worst ever defeat in the state. On the other hand, the BJP may comfortably register its sixth consecutive electoral victory in the state.