Coming simultaneously with the defeats in Himachal Pradesh and Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) elections, the historic verdict in the Gujarat Assembly elections 2022 in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — in that order — has two key takeaways.
One, the Gujarat vote exclusively belongs to Mr. Modi who has championed his version of nationalism among the people of his home-State; it is this image that has helped the BJP win a mind-boggling 156 out of 182 seats in the State Assembly. It was this that dwarfed a range of serious policy and governance issues, national or State-level, as well as high price-rise, unemployment, the COVID-19 chaos, the Morbi disaster, farmers’ blues that even has the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-arm Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) up in arms, and the tardy implementation of key legislations affecting the livelihood of tribals.
Two, it has come as yet another reminder of the inability and other preoccupations of the Congress party, especially its central leadership, to set a focused agenda on issues and an increasing loss of direction. And this has been in spite of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
The low voter turnout of around 65% as against about 71% in the 2017 elections in Gujarat could be because there was precious little to show in terms of performance by the BJP’s State Government between 2017 and 2021 when the Vijay Rupani government was sacked lest it cost the party the polls in 2022.
The regime led by the next incumbent Bhupendra Patel, a first-time MLA, was just over a year-old and his job was to hold the fort. Though he did so, simmering anger among lakhs of government employees saw the Patel dispensation facing 32 agitations that were significantly about regularisation of almost permanently temporary and contract staff as also the revision of pay grades. It was unusual that families of policemen (constables and para-police jawans) hit the streets to raise their demand for pay grade revision.
Huge protests broke out in the tribal region of South Gujarat after the Union Budget for 2022-23 announced the implementation of the Maharashtra-Gujarat Par-Tapi-Narmada Riverlinking Project.
Led by the Congress’s young aggressive legislator Anant Patel, the anger among the Adivasis forced the government to scrap the project. He is the only one among the Congress’s candidates in the South Gujarat’s tribal belt who has won. It was unprecedented that an agitation led by the Congress party — which in itself was unusual and remained one-off in Gujarat — would force the Modi government to withdraw an ambitious scheme.
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The ham-handed approach to a proposed legislation against the cattle menace, which was passed with a majority on the last day of the State Assembly (after a debate that lasted until midnight) was rolled back. This was in the face of huge protests by maldharis (cattle rearers), who threatened to queer the pitch for the party in the elections.
A connection with policies
All the three — the unrest among government staff, protests by the tribals and the maldharis — had a connection with the policies pursued by the BJP government. The long-drawn phase of outsourcing government work to temporary staff for a pittance (against the regular staff) is a policy aggressively implemented by the BJP. The same has been extended to government education and the health system, which is increasingly losing priority in favour of the private sector. In the case of tribals and maldharis, it is the policy of lopsided industrial growth defined as development which has squeezed their lands in favour of industry or real estate. For instance, nearly 70% of gauchar (land for grazing cattle) land has vanished, according to official data.
Despite these and several other issues, the Congress scored its lowest — 17 seats. Besides the BJP’s hegemony, the Congress now seems to have widened the scope of its tendency to allow itself to be trampled on by the likes of the newcomer Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. A senior leader and Congress candidate from an Assembly constituency in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region said, “We (several others also) have conveyed to the party not to send central leaders for campaigning in our areas.”
“They don’t know the local realities and instead of putting the house in order sometimes use such words that the BJP exploits to the fullest. We were so careful this time to avoid any adjective or expletive that may be turned against us to the extent of costing our seat.” This assertion came from other candidates, including two sitting MLAs, in private conversations. Another reason they cited was a resource crunch with the party.
On the other hand, several Congress leaders and senior party workers in Gujarat still wish to know why Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra that continues to receive a good response, skipped Gujarat altogether. This was even more so, because the 2017 Gujarat election campaign by Mr. Gandhi was among his best political achievements ever.
The 2017 election was a watershed moment but the Congress just could not see the opportunity there.
It was unprecedented that a leader from the Gandhi family would spend three days each in four regions of Gujarat and address each region according to the issues they faced. Mr. Gandhi had then interacted freely with the crowds — something that has been seen during the Bharat Jodo Yatra — but also ate and had tea at non-descript highway dhabas or small restaurants in towns.
He spoke of Mr. Modi’s economic policies, privatisation in the education and health sectors, unemployment, crony capitalism and its impact on the small-scale and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises sectors. It was unthinkable in Gujarat that a Patidar (Hardik Patel), an Other Backward Class person (Alpesh Thakor) and a Dalit (Jignesh Mevani) would come together on the same platform to speak of common issues that spawned from increasingly privatising expensive education, unemployment (despite huge industrial investment), and increasingly unviable agricultural operations.
But the gains for the Opposition in 2017 remained illusionary, with the fraying of that “coalition”. The BJP managed to overcome the challenge and carry the day, thanks in large measure to the Prime Minister’s ability to set the discourse in his political bastion.
Darshan Desai is Founder-Editor, Development News Network (DNN), Gujarat. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)