While the BJP is expected to win Himachal hands down, the story in Gujarat could play out a little differently.
In survey after pre-poll survey of the hill state of Himachal Pradesh and Prime Minister Modi's home state of Gujarat, the BJP has looked simply unstoppable. The Congress had no strategy in HP. But in Gujarat, the BJP is facing an unexpected challenge from the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress. The nearly decimated opposition is back in the game after the shift of the formidable young Patidar-OBC-Dalit leaders in Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani to the Congress camp, with the OBC's impact on some 70 seats set to be the deciding factor in the 182 seat Assembly poll. Dubbed derisively as HAJ, the shift away from the right for nearly 60% of the electorate is the Congress' only card to counter the BJP cashing in on Gujarat's sense of pride in having their own man as PM, part of RAM, the formidable Rupani-Amit-Modi combine. Sanjay Basak reports.
If one were to go by the revolving door that is the electoral politics of this hill state, it’s the BJP’s turn to upset the apple-cart in Himachal Pradesh. Reeling from corruption charges, weighed down by anti-incumbency, the ruling Congress has little going for it. Even the late announcement of Prem Kumar Dhumal as the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate that ended the chief ministerial hopes of rivals J.P.Nadda and the ageing Shanta Kumar is unlikely to help the Congress’ Raja Virbhadra Singh.
As Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi summed up while electioneering in Himachal Pradesh: “Congress leadership is out on bail. Everything is on bail - the party, its leaders and the government.”
A C-Voter survey ahead of the November 9 round of voting, predicted a “thumping victory for the BJP”, a gain from an 11.8 per cent swing in vote share, with the Congress suffering a swing of a negative five percent, which translates into the BJP doubling its tally of 26 seats to 52 and the incumbent Congress, possibly losing 21 seats, down to 36 seats.
Other surveys say that of the 68 Assembly berths, the BJP will walk away with 43-47 seats but party insiders are quietly confident that they will win up to 50 seats, with the Congress crashing to a low of 18 seats.
But that's where the cakewalk may well end. While the BJP is expected to win Himachal hands down, the story in Gujarat could play out a little differently. With less than a month to go for polls, all roads for the BJP lead to Gujarat. The well-oiled saffron machinery is working overtime to retain the home turf of Prime Minister Modi. Yet, the entire onus on making the home run rests on BJP's only vote catching machine - Narendra Damodardas Modi, with the party finding that survey after survey predicts a BJP win but with a "reduced vote share."
The man, grabbing eyeballs is a Congress vice president, who has been panned and ridiculed by all and sundry in the saffron camp, and yet it is Rahul Gandhi, who is giving the mighty BJP a run for it's money in Gujarat. David, challenging the Goliath.
And the Congress scion is on the move. Reaching out to an unlikely trio of the young and spirited, through whom he has reached out to three key communities. He has wooed the influential Patidar community leader, Hardik Patel, Dalit leader, Jignesh Mevani and OBC leader, Alpesh Thakor. While Hardik Patel and Mevani have openly voiced their support for Congress, Thakore has joined the party. Whether the Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav, supported by Congress contesting five seats will make a difference or not, remains to be seen.
The turning point for the Congress may have begun with the bitterly fought Rajya Sabha elections, in which despite obvious attempts, the BJP failed to defeat Congress’ Ahmed Patel. Since then, the party’s on an upswing. Rahul Gandhi’s visits to the state have been drawing crowds and he’s doing what saffronites are masters at – praying at temples, seeking divine intervention. His description of GST as “Gabbar Singh Tax” connected with the electorates in the state.
Complicating matters for the BJP, the Shiv Sena has threatened to contest at least 70 seats in the state. Shiv Sena with it’s hardline Hindutva agenda could cut into BJP’s vote bank and damage the outfit.
Therefore on the surface the Congress led mega coalition, which is taking shape looks formidable and invincible..
As for statistics, the powerful Patidars comprise 16 percent of the state population, OBCs 40 per cent while the Dalits in the state make for around eight per cent. Muslims comprise 9 percent of Gujarat’s population. The Muslims in the state are expected to vote against the BJP. Reports further indicate that of the 182 Assembly seats, OBCs influence at least 70 assembly berths, Muslims nearly 30, Tribals (ST) nearly 25 and Dalits between 10 to 13.
Local electoral arithmetic shows one key indicator - whichever way the OBC’s tilt, that particular outfit forms the government. Gaurang Jani, sociologist at Ahmedabad’s Gujarat University while speaking to an English magazine had observed, “after 1960 when Gujarat was formed, the OBCs had supported the Congress.” He went on to add that “OBC’s support for the Congress peaked in 1985 when the Congress led by Madhavsinh Solanki, himself an OBC won 149 seats. Thereafter, when the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation started, many OBCs were attracted to Hindutva and threw in their lot with the BJP.”
But now a new caste equation could be forming. With Alpesh Thakor, the OBC leader and convenor of the Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena joining the Congress, Rahul Gandhi is hoping to get his party’s traditional vote bank back into its corner. If as reports from the state indicate, and the Patidars, the Dalits, alongside the OBCs, are deeply upset with the BJP, with the twin blows of Demonetisation and GST hurting the common people and the traders, the BJP, which will be going to polls for the first time without Modi at the helm of the state’s affairs, could be on shaky ground.
Aware that BJP could suffer a body blow in Gujarat, the Prime Minister has been visiting the state regularly and is expected to hold at least 30 rallies before the elections on December 9 and 10. Yet despite the odds, the bookies are still betting on the BJP. Long time Gujarat watchers say that even if it looks as if the BJP has nothing much to show but the ace up its sleeve, Gujarat’s “son of the soil”- Narendra Modi - it is Modi’s charisma and appeal that the BJP is banking on.
To begin with, the Election Commission’s surprise move to delay announcing the poll dates for Gujarat offered BJP a massive advantage. The Prime Minister and his lotus brigade pounced on this opportunity and showered sops and assured the traders that he was “looking into the GST issues.” On Friday, the GST council cut GST on over 210 items. Sensing the anger, Modi had tried to project Congress as an accomplice. “Congress is an equal partner in GST decisions. They should not spread lies,” Mr Modi had said in a rally in Gandhinagar. In fact PM Modi’s appeal to his state remains, with the anger aimed more at the BJP than the former chief minister who continues to “rule their hearts.” In the 2015 local body polls, for instance, while the Congress swept rural Gujarat, the BJP retained its grip on the urban areas.
The BJP spin doctors admit that while the OBCs may be angry with the BJP, they have “not yet shed their love for Hindutva.” As a senior BJP leader pointed out, “Modi who hails from OBC community also continues to be the icon of Hindutva.” For the saffron strategists, this “is a killer combination.” The BJP leaders were “confident” that the “majority of the OBCs will rally behind Modiji.”
While the Prime Minister in his rallies has been talking about Vikasbad and Vannshvad (progress versus dynasty)”, fringe elements continue to play the Hindutva card. A report in National Herald claimed that “a poster doing the rounds on social media, allegedly released by a local RSS unit in Gujarat is playing the religion card, asking people to choose between RAM and HAJ.” That’s Rupani-Amit Shah-Modi versus Hardik-Alpesh-Jignesh.
For the Congress, the Patidar vote is not yet a given. While Hardik Patel continues to breathe fire against the BJP, the local BJP leaders claimed that the majority of the Patidars continue to support the BJP. It may be recalled that over the years more than two-thirds of the community have been voting for the BJP. Dismissing Hardik Patel, a senior BJP leader pointed out, “If Keshubhai Patel failed to sway the Patidars away from Modiji, how do you expect someone like Hardik will be able to do so?”
On the question of the Shiv Sena eating into their vote, the BJP leader was equally dismissive. “ It will meet the fate of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM during the Bihar polls.” The AIMIM was completely routed in the Bihar elections.
Besides this, the Congress and it’s allies are also up against the “shah of strategy”, BJP president, Amit Shah. With successive electoral victories, particularly the stunning win in Uttar Pradesh, Amit Shah’s organisational skills and booth level management have become legendary. And Shah has set his sights on winning 150 of 182 seats. “We might not win 150 seats, but we will win,” a BJP leader, who has been regularly visiting Gujarat said.
A survey conducted by ABP-CSDS projected BJP winning between 113-121 seats and the Congress, 58-64 seats. But according to the second round of the poll survey conducted by ABP News-Lokniti-CSDS in the last week of October, the BJP’s seat share declined sharply from the high of 59% in August, dropping 6 per cent to 43%- 47%. The Congress would be getting 41 percent per cent votes, a gain of 12 percent. In other words, in the space of two months, there has been a major shift, with only six percentage points between the BJP and the Congress.
Analysts say that the BJP’s polls strategists, realizing the underlying anger as demonstrated by the trashing of poll venues, have pushed the government into assuaging the anger of the trading community by cutting GST in key segments. They also point to the same heady pro-Congress pre-poll surveys ahead of the UP polls that came crashing down when the actual votes were counted.
As the Congress moves towards the tricky stretch of seat distribution, picking 80 candidates for the first phase on December 9 from the newly augmented OBC ranks without alienating its own Congress core, it plans to set aside 20-25 seats for Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti with Rahul Gandhi reported to be willing to offer another 25, if need be. Will the Patidars follow the 24 year old’s lead and break with the BJP?
Sitting in his Ashoka Road office, a BJP functionary, looking somewhat worried said; “Congress can lose Gujarat and afford to move on. We cannot. For us losing Gujarat could well be the beginning of the end.” Then he leaned closer and whispered-“For various reasons we cannot lose Gujarat. It will be dangerous.”