Maheshbhai Patel was milking his buffaloes when I met him in late November. A resident of Banaskantha district’s Kumbhasan village, he complained of surging inflation driving down profit margins in dairy farming – often called the backbone of Gujarat’s rural economy. He was echoing what most dairy farmers across the districts of Banaskantha and Mehsana, among the state’s highest milk producing districts, had told me, when I visited the area ahead of the Assembly election.
“Inflation has really killed us,” he said. “What the animal eats is much more than what it gives now.”
And whose fault was that, I asked.
“You and I don’t decide these things, the government does – so obviously it’s their failure.”
Would people not vote for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party this time then, I asked.
“No, there is no choice but to vote for the BJP because of people like them,” he said, pointing at his Muslim neighbour, an Adivasi rights activist who was accompanying me.
Both of them laughed out loud immediately.
It was a joke, Maheshbhai Patel clarified. “I think we should kick out both the BJP and the Congress,” he said. “We have seen enough of them.”
This was among the last interviews I did over the course of reporting from Gujarat for more than three months leading up to the Assembly election.
While Maheshbhai Patel said what he did in jest, it quite succinctly captured what I had repeatedly heard in the state.
Despite very clear signs of economic distress – everyone from wealthy textile traders in Surat to impoverished tobacco growers in central Gujarat said they were feeling the pinch of poor growth and high inflation – there seemed to be very little anti-incumbency in the state, where BJP has been in power for 27 years.
The election results bear this out. As of 3 pm, the party is tipped to win 157 of the 182 constituencies in the state – the highest tally ever won by a party in the state. Its closest competitor, the Congress, is likely to end below 21 seats.
Equally stunning is the fact that more than half the state’s population has voted for the BJP – unprecedented even by the party’s exalted status in the state.
The victory and its scale can be attributed to three broad factors.
At the heart of it is the deeply embedded Hindutva politics in the state.
In Saurashtra’s Amreli district for instance, a group of Patidar cotton farmers, who claimed their economic fortunes had declined in the last couple of years, said they had no choice but to stick to the BJP. “Earlier when we had to go to Ahmedabad, we had to enquire if there was trouble,” said a farmer. “But after saheb came, there are no riots, no trouble.”
Saheb was a reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who, before he moved to the national stage, was the state’s chief minister for 13 years. In 2002, under his watch, Gujarat saw intense anti-Muslim violence that left nearly 2,000 people dead.
Conversations with voters showed that anti-Muslim sentiment is still quite strong in the state.
In Surat, textile traders who vocally grumbled about business slowing down because people were simply not buying clothes like before, were absolutely clear about why they didn’t want to vote for anyone else. “If anyone else comes to power, particularly the Congress, our Miyabhais would get emboldened,” one person told me.
This despite the fact that Muslims account for barely 10% of the total population, both in Surat district and across the state.
It was a clear pattern across most places I visited: the religious divide trumped economic considerations.
Against that backdrop, the BJP’s victory was to a large extent a foregone conclusion. It is the scale that perhaps exceeds expectations.
Conversations with residents of the state suggest that the BJP owes this to Modi. Given his near-invincible stature in the Centre, many on-the-fence voters had told me that it was probably best to stick to the BJP. “Say the BJP loses power in Gujarat, but Narendrabhai is not going anywhere, so why do unnecessary magajhmaari,” a Rajkot businessman told me.
To be sure, many people in Gujarat I met spoke of inefficient local BJP MLAs and corrupt officials. Yet, there seemed to be this unwavering belief that all of it paled in the face of what Modi had done for Gujarat. In short, small inconveniences could be ignored for the sake of Modi.
A split in Opposition vote
The contest turning three-cornered, courtesy of the Aam Aadmi Party entering the fray, made the outcome even more lopsided. It was, as observers and exit polls predicted, inevitable in the first past the post system.
The anti-BJP vote got fractured, paving way for the BJP to cross the 150 mark, something that has never happened in Gujarat’s electoral history.
AAP, as of 3 pm, had raked in nearly 13% of the total votes – largely at the expense of the Congress. In the 2017 Assembly elections, Congress’s vote share was slightly over 41%. This time, it has plummeted to 27%, as of 3 pm.
Consider the region of Saurashtra that the Congress had done exceptionally well in the previous election in 2017. The BJP this time has wrested the region back almost entirely, even as the AAP has gained ground at the cost of the Congress.
In 18 of the 43 seats in the region, the combined vote share of AAP and Congress was higher than the BJP, as of 3 pm.
For its part, the Opposition failed to create a convincing counter-narrative. It is by now abundantly clear that talking only inflation and unemployment isn’t good enough to dislodge the BJP.
In 2017, the momentum of the Patidar reservation had added to headwinds of the Congress, making it one of the most tightly contested in recent times. In the absence of a similar social push, there was going to be only one way a Gujarat election could have ended in the Modi era.