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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 52, December 17, 2022

Reflections on the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly Election results | P S Jayaramu

Friday 16 December 2022


by P. S. Jayaramu

12th December, 2022

The much-awaited Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly election results were out a few days ago. It is time to reflect on the results as a whole.

Let me take up the Gujarat polls first. As part of its missionary zeal to win elections, the the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got into the election mode nearly an year ago, with the Party President J P Nadda and Prime Minister Narendra Modi making periodic visits to the State to prepare the ground for recapturing power, not to forget the role played by Amit Shah as the Party’s supreme strategist to prepare the ground for the choice of candidates for the assembly polls, which included bringing in new names in place of the existing MLAs.

The announcement of the election dates was delayed by by the Election Commission of India (ECI) as it perhaps wanted the Prime Minister to make as many poll promises/ announcements as possible. The ECI however, denied any partiality by stating that it was sticking to the pattern it had followed in 2017 regarding Himachal and Gujarat poll announcements on different dates. However, the Opposition and to some extent, the public perception was to the contrary.

As for the elections itself, with the entry of Aam Admi Party (AAP) into the electoral scene, enthused by its success in the municipal election results of Saurastra, the discussion got centered around the issue of whether the electoral battle would be multipolar in a real sense. Yes, at one level, it appeared so, going by the fact that the AAP’s national President Arvind Kejriwal visited the state almost every week after the announcement of poll dates, not to speak of his earlier preparatory visits. As for the Congress Party, the Gandhi family virtually kelt out of the poll campaign and it was left to the local leaders and the national President Mallikarjun Kharge who unnecessarily took on Narendra Modi with his comment “Does Modi have hundred heads”, an issue which was exploited by the BJP election machine as an insult to the Gujarati pride symbolised by Modi. May be, Kharge’s comment helped the BJP in some small way in the final stages in making the ambivalent voters turn in favour of the Party in the name of upholding the Gujarati ‘asmita’, (identity). It is useful to remember that In 2017, senior Congressman, Manishankar Aiyar had called Modi ‘neech’ and the BJP had capitalised on his comment describing it as hurting the Gujaratis sentiments.

Let us turn to more substantive issues. In this election, as in the past, Narendra Modi remained the BJP’s mascot and the primary vote-catcher. He was a very frequent visitor to the State as part of his campaign speeches, which included road shows. The extensive campaign visits undertaken by Modi and Shah, in addition to the battery of central ministers on their campaign spree were perhaps due to some amount of nervousness created by the entry of AAP into the electoral fray. However, Modi kept his focus on the beneficiaries (labhartis) of his various programmes like, the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana,(PMGKAY), a free ration scheme started during the Covid 19 times and continued presently too, the self-help Yojana scheme for women, the PM Awas Yojana etc. The schemes were highly publicised as part of Modi’s campaign. Also, Modi astutely encouraged the the transfer of infrastructural projects worth ₹1.8 lakh crores from Maharashtra to Gujarat in September, promising employment opportunities, with an eye on garnering electoral benefits.

Reports indicate that the youth of Gujarat, specially in the rural areas, are suffering on account of unemployment in addition to poor health-care facilities and low standards in education. Incidentally, these were the sectors in which the AAP promised to deliver, based on its Delhi model. But, the BJP propaganda machine, along with the support of large sections of the visual and print media helped the Party to return to power in the State for a record 7th term with a historic mandate by capturing 156 of the 182 seats. BJP’s vote share jumped to 52.5 percent. It was better than the previous Congress record of winning 149 seats in 1985 during the Madhavsinh Solanki era in Gujarat Politics. It is important to note that the with this victory, the BJP in Gujarat has also equalled the record of the Left-Front Government which enjoyed power in West Bengal for seven terms from 1977 to 2011. BJP’s victory was also marked by the fact that it captured 23 of the 27 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes ( STs) across the tribal belt from the north to the south. The Party performed better even in traditional bastions in central and northern Gujarat, in addition to Saurastra. With such a performance, anti-incumbency as a factor did not work as the Party High Command cleverly brought about change of chief minister and a big chunk of the Council of Ministers an year before the elections, a pattern the Party is following as part of its electoral strategy in many States.

That the Morbi bridge collapse tragedy which took away lives of more than 120 people did not prevent the voters to return the BJP candidates at the hustlings points to three things: a) the tragedy was not a factor in the calculations of the voters; b) they voted for Modi, not willing to hold him responsible for it. c) The Modi cult transcends the failures of the state government. Reports have it that the really guilty persons responsible for the tragedy have not been subjected to any punishment so far. Modi also converted the assembly election into a Presidential battle between himself and the rest. The strategy seems to have yielded the desired results.

Despite its historic victory in Gujarat, the BJP should open its eyes to its excessive dependence on Narendra Modi as its vote-catcher. Questions like what happens when Modi ceases to be in power need to be thought through. The Party’s central leadership should bestow attention to develop dependable state level leaderships to handle electoral issues without depending on a particular leader.

As for the performance of the Congress Party, the Party fared badly by winning just 17 seats, with its vote share falling to 27.3 percent. The Party’s dismal performance can be understood by the fact that it drew a blank in almost 15 of the 33 districts, not winning any urban seats in cities like Surat, Vadodara, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Bhavnagar and Gandhinagar. The Party needs to introspect and work seriously if it has to rebuild itself at the state level.

As for the Aam Aadmi Party, it attracted huge publicity, backed by media reports about the Party offering a stiff opposition to the BJP. But, in the final analysis, AAP was able to win only 5 seats. According to some reports, its decision to contest in the tribal areas of the State, made the contest triangular in about 50 constituencies splitting the votes and in the process benefitting the BJP.

Himachal Pradesh results:

As regards the assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh, it was essentially a contest between the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress Party. It is noteworthy that the electoral battle in the State has remained bipolar for more than three decades, with the Congress and the BJP being voted to power by the electorate alternatively. This time round too, the anti-incumbency factor worked in the State with the Congress being voted to power.

The BJP government led by Jairam Thakur did not credit itself well unable to handle the unemployment situation and the economic distress faced by the electorate due to inflation etc.. Farmers’ discontent over the removal of subsidies seems to have played a critical role in the BJP candidates facing defeat in many constituencies in the State.

Though the chief minister retained his seat by a margin of over 37000 votes, reportedly the highest ever by a serving chief minister in the State, eight of his ten ministerial colleagues faced defeat. Though initially on the counting day, it looked like a neck and neck battle for the ‘gaddi’ between the BJP and the Congress, in the final analysis, the Congress Party was able to win a decisive mandate by capturing 40 seats in an assembly consisting of 68 members. The BJP was restricted to 25 seats. Though the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was in the electoral fray, the Party’s national leadership headed by Arvind Kejtiwal did not campaign seriously, sensing perhaps that the context was directly between the Congress and the BJP.

Concluding observations :

The results of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections lead to the following conclusions :

1) The BJP is deeply entrenched in Gujarat with the voters reporting faith in Narendra Modi. That they voted in the elections keeping Modi and his central schemes in mind, and not going by the failures of the state government, including the Morbi tragedy, is borne out by the results.

2) The Party also took care to reach out to the various voter segments, including the influential Patels the OBCs, the STs, women and the youth. However, as noted earlier, the Party will have to ponder over its excessive dependence on Narendra Modi as its principal vote catcher.

3) The Gujarat victory is likely to act as a morale booster to the BJP and Prime Minister Modi to prepare themselves to come back to power in 2024 at the national level. However, our Political Parties need to be aware of the dangers of electoral autocracy becoming an entrenched feature of India’s Parliamentary democracy and chalk out strategies to counter it.

4) Though the Congress Party has captured power in Himachal Pradesh, the Party needs to work hard to reinvent itself if it has to play the role of a serious contender for power in 2024 at the national level. It remains to be seen whether the ‘Bharat Jodo’ Yatra will help the Party to translate the extensive popular support it is receiving into an electoral dividend or whether the grand old party will remain a movement hereafter!

5) Though the AAP managed to capture only five seats in the Gujarat assembly elections, it has emerged as a national party. It is unfortunate that in the recently concluded elections, it indirectly helped the BJP to register a resounding victory by cutting into the Congress votes. AAP is likely to be a challenger to the BJP’s hegemonic position in 2029, if not in 2024. However, at a larger level, it is imperative for our Political Parties, national well as regional, to forge a common platform/ mahaghatbandhan to take on the BJP juggernaut.

(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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