The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has managed only a modest victory in Gujarat , confirming some earlier psephological predictions and ground reports of a close electoral contest. Two polls conducted by us at Lokniti, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), one in end-October and another in end-November, had found the electoral race between the BJP and the Congress to have tightened considerably. In fact, the November survey had found the race to be neck-and-neck in terms of vote share. That trend, however, did not hold entirely till Voting Day. It now seems that a last-minute swing by some voters towards the final stages of the campaign ended up giving the edge to the BJP.
We say this based on evidence gathered from a post-poll, a survey of voters at their residences after they voted, conducted by Lokniti. The poll reveals that over two in every five voters (43%) took a final call on who they would vote for in the last two weeks of campaigning — and more than half of them (53%) said they voted for the BJP while only about 38% went with the Congress. In fact, a majority of these late deciders are those who decided at the last minute, either on the day of voting or a day or two before it. In 2012 the share of late deciders had been much lower, at 31%, and back then they had split their vote evenly between the BJP and the Congress.
The question then is, what really happened, between the last week of November when our final pre-poll took place and the second week of December when actual voting took place, that made some disaffected voters planning to vote for the Congress change their minds? The answer to this question is not so difficult to find.
The late shift
We believe that it is quite obviously Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaigning, which was for the most part controversial and divisive, that played a role in turning a section of voters towards the BJP, thus saving it from a possible defeat. This is the period when the Prime Minister, who is hugely liked in Gujarat (by 72% of those surveyed, post-poll), campaigned extensively in the State. Starting from November 27 right up till December 11, he addressed more than 30 election rallies across the State. Most of his speeches, especially the ones made at rallies post-December 5, focussed on divisive themes. Mandir-Masjid, Mughals, Pakistan, Ahmed Patel, Salman Nizami, etc., he practised classic dog-whistle politics by using coded language that might have stoked passions among some sections of the electorate.
In our final pre-poll done in end-November, we had found only about 45% of Hindu voters to be voting for the BJP. In the post-poll, we noticed that eventually nearly 52% of them ended up voting for the incumbent party. This is also three points higher than the Hindu support that the BJP received in 2012. While our post-poll also suggests an increase in Muslim votes for the BJP compared to last time, at the same time it also points to a consolidation of Hindu votes behind the party in Assembly seats where the Muslim population is much higher than average. In constituencies where Muslims in the population are less than 10%, the BJP’s lead over the Congress among Hindu voters is only 4 percentage points. In seats where Muslims constitute 10-20% of the population, the gap is six times higher at 25 points. And in areas where Muslims are over 20% of the population, the BJP leads the Congress by 42 points among Hindu voters. In our pre-poll, these gaps had been minus-3, 16 and 11 points, respectively.
The Hindu card
Among the major worries of the BJP all throughout the campaign had been the Patidar disaffection with the party as well as the Congress’s attempts to build a rainbow coalition of different castes by roping in young Patel, Dalit and OBC (Other Backward Classes) leaders on its side. By giving communal overtones to the campaign, the Prime Minister seems to have ensured a subsuming of some of these caste identities within the Hindu fold, thus helping the BJP hold on to its bastion. We notice a shift away from the Congress among all Hindu communities, be it Patidars, Kshatriyas, Dalits, and Adivasis, between the pre-poll and the post-poll. To be fair, it wasn’t just the BJP that played the Hindu card; the Congress tried doing it too, albeit covertly. All throughout the campaign, Rahul Gandhi, who led the party campaign, steered clear of raising issues concerning Muslim voters and instead chose to appeal to majoritarian sentiments by visiting temples across the State.
However, eventually it seems that in this competition to woo the Gujarati Hindus, most Hindu voters, particularly urban ones, were more convinced by Mr. Modi’s insinuations than by Mr. Gandhi’s attempts at asserting his Hindu-ness. The Congress’s strategic abandonment of its pluralistic legacy for electoral gains is to our mind as worrying as the communal rhetoric in Mr. Modi’s campaign.
Also, the fact that a seemingly neck-and-neck election can be turned around in such a short span by appealing to the majoritarian impulses of voters raises troubling questions about the health of our electoral democracy.
A section of the Gujarati press may have also played a role, perhaps inadvertently, in effecting the late swing of some voters. A day after Mr. Modi raised a hue and cry at one of his rallies about Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar’s remark calling him a “ neech kisam ka aadmi (a low type of man)”, the hugely popular Gujarati newspaper, Gujarat Samachar, which has otherwise been quite critical of Mr. Modi over the years, ran a headline on its front page: “ Modi neech jaatino maanas chhe: Mani Shankar Aiyar (Modi is a man from a lower caste says Mani Shankar Aiyar)”. While Mr. Aiyar had described Mr. Modi as “ neech ”, the newspaper chose to give the remark its own spin, or rather Mr. Modi’s spin, by adding the word “ jaati ” to it. Such misreporting of Mr. Aiyar’s comment in sections of the press just a day before voting was to take place in Saurashtra-Kutchh and South Gujarat may well have affected the mood of a significant proportion of voters. Our series of surveys in Gujarat suggest that on an average about one-third of voters in Gujarat are daily readers of newspapers. Among such voters, the BJP’s lead over the Congress widened from 8 points in the pre-poll to 14 points in the post-poll.
Winning the trust and confidence of a majority of voters election after election is no mean achievement, and there’s no doubt the BJP should be commended for this. But at the same time the uncomfortable question we must be asking is this — was this trust of voters won by the BJP fairly and squarely on the performance plank alone or whether a large part of it was also won through divisive innuendos, falsehoods and fear mongering?
Shreyas Sardesai is Research Associate at Lokniti, CSDS. Sanjay Kumar is a Professor and currently the Director of CSDS, Delhi