New Delhi: Thursday’s elections in Gujarat, traditionally a stronghold of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, may not go the way the party would like it to, although details will emerge only on 16 May when results of India’s 15th general election is declared.
That’s because of a lack of a central issue in these elections. As a result, voters will likely go back to voting along caste lines, say analysts, and that could be disastrous for BJP.
Over the years, Gujarat has seen a polarization along religious lines. The 2002 riots in the state marked an endgame in this polarization. Since 1995, the state has been ruled by BJP governments. However, neither this nor the polarization has meant a clear mandate for the party in parliamentary elections.
Rally point: Narendra Modi. Sam Panthaky / AFP
In the 2004 parliamentary polls, the BJP won 14 seats to Congress’ 12. Gujarat sends 26 representatives to the Lok Sabha. In 2007’s assembly elections, the BJP came back to power on a development ticket. However, some analysts say the victory was helped by the Congress’ attempt to portray BJP chief minister Narendra Modi as the engineer of the riots—a move that they claim backfired on the party with Hindus voting en masse for Modi.
Still, that victory is unlikely to do much for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, say analysts.
“The fight will be a tough one in Gujarat this time as several caste groups scattered across districts are mobilizing people to vote against the BJP and local issues are once again cropping up as the central factor in deciding the winner,” said Priyavadan Patel, an Ahmedabad-based researcher associated with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.
Monday’s Supreme Court order asking the Special Investigation Team probing the Gujarat riots to investigate the role of Modi may have become a rallying point for the BJP but it came too late, said Patel.
In the absence of such issues, local and regional concerns have come to the fore, even in Gandhinagar, the constituency of BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani.
“The upper caste Patidars and Thakurs who have been a traditional supporter of the party are angry with the BJP in Gandhinagar. The reason for this change in stance is the perceived proximity of Advani to Asaram Bapu (a religious leader). The local people here have been protesting against the murder of two boys in an institution run by Asaram Bapu as well as alleged grabbing of land by his supporters,” said Patel.
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Advani’s problems have been compounded by the removal of two assembly constituencies considered to be BJP strongholds in Gandhinagar—Naroda and Ellis Bridge —from this Lok Sabha constituency as part of a delimitation exercise, which has redrawn the boundaries of constituencies on the basis of population.
“L.K. Advani faces a serious challenge this time from Suresh Patel, despite having won from the this constituency with a lead of over 2 lakh votes in 2004,” said Pravin Sheth, a former head of the political science department in Gujarat University, citing the same reasons as Patel.
“We believe that the BJP will have a tough time defending five seats which it occupies now. There is no central issue around which people will vote. I think this will be to the advantage of Congress,” said a senior Congress leader who didn’t want to be identified. This leader said the constituencies where the BJP would find the going tough include Dahod, Surendranagar, Kachchh, Rajkot and Patan.
Sheth, who taught Modi when the latter was a student of the university in the late 1970s, said the BJP would have to contend with a tough fight in Gandhinagar, Surat, Rajkot and Panchmahal.
The Congress leader said there are other constituencies as well where the BJP won’t have it easy. He claimed that there has been a consolidation of the so-called upper-class vote against BJP’s Jayashree Patel in Mehsana and anger against the party in Anand because it had given a ticket to Dipak Patel (also known as Deepak Sathi), accused in the multi-crore Charotar Nagarik Sahakari Bank scam. Even the party’s candidate from Nausari, C.R. Patil has been accused of involvement in the Diamond Jubilee Co-operative Bank scam, he said.
The Charotar Nagarik Sahakari Bank had allegedly issued letters of credit (LCs) worth Rs20 crore in all to several bogus companies in 2002. The companies got the LCs discounted at another bank based in Baroda. Sathi is facing charges for cheating after a case was booked against him at Anand town police station in 2004.
In the same year, the crime branch police arrested Patil as chief defaulter in the Diamond Jubilee Cooperative Bank scam. Patil had allegedly taken a loan of more than Rs54 crore and did not pay up, causing the bank to be suspended from the clearing house. Hundreds of thousands of account-holders with the five branches of the bank, many from the middle- and low-income groups, are yet to get their money back.
Mint couldn’t immediately contact Dipak Patel and C.R. Patil, nor could it independently ascertain whether they were involved in these scams.
There are other local issues that have led to growing resentment against the BJP, said Seth. The crisis faced by diamond workers in Surat (their business has been hit badly by the global slowdown), the lack of enthusiasm among senior BJP workers in Rajkot (on account of the party’s decision to field newcomer Kiran Patel) and the presence of Shankersinh Vaghela (a former BJP leader who moved to the Congress in 1999) in Panchmahal are reasons for the resurgence of the Congress in these parliamentary constituencies, he added.
Such analysis doesn’t cut much ice with the BJP.
“The BJP’s great success in Gujarat is that we have been successful to make the citizens of Gujarat think of themselves as only Gujaratis than anything else. The caste votes are not going to other parties. Such analysis does not come true,” said BJP spokesman Prakash Javdekar.
This time, BJP has fielded first-timers in 16 of the 26 constituencies. “BJP had experimented with fielding new candidates during the assembly elections and it worked. However, when it comes to the Lok Sabha elections, this strategy may not be wise given that the parliamentary constituencies are much larger in scale and require candidates who are either familiar to the local population or come with a reputation,” said Priyavadan Patel.
The difference between the BJP and the Congress in terms of vote share was 2.3 percentage points during the 2004 Lok Sabha polls with the BJP securing 47.34 % of the vote and Congress, 43.86 %. During the Gujarat assembly polls of 2007, the BJP won 49.12% of the votes while the Congress won 38%.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint