Despite the disaffection against the Bharatiya Janata Party, despite the anti-incumbency after more than 20 years in power, despite the after-effects of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax, despite the emergence of Patidar, OBC and Dalit leaders outside the BJP fold and despite the unusually successful Congress campaign, few are willing to predict a loss for the saffron party in Gujarat. A new opinion poll by CSDS-Lokniti released on Monday does not say the BJP is losing either, but it does put the vote share of both parties at 43%, promising the most interesting election in the state in decades.
“The electoral race in Gujarat between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress could well be headed for a photo finish,” the Lokniti team said in a press release. “The Congress’s recovery in the State has been nothing short of stunning... The challenge now for the Congress is to not let this momentum slip away in the last few days of campaigning.”
The survey, conducted from November 23 to November 30 among 3,655 voters in 200 locations, projects a 43% vote share for both the BJP and the Congress. The fact that the two parties are even close to each other is massive, in a state where the vote share gap of around 4 percentage points has remained consistent for nearly two decades now.
But the figures are even more impressive considering how far the Congress has come in the last few months, and how much the BJP has fallen. CSDS-Lokniti’s own survey from August this year showed a huge difference, with the BJP likely to get 59% of the vote share and Congress just 29%. Between August and November, Congress has picked up 14 percentage points while the BJP has lost 16.
Even if that huge vote share gain for the Congress does not translate into an equal number of seats, it would still be a massive achievement – one that would seriously dent the BJP’s image and alter calculations for what happens hereon. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah hail from Gujarat, and until recently it was presumed that the state was practically theirs to take.
Yet, according to CSDS-Lokniti, enough issues have cropped up, which a substantial number of voters feel are serious enough to punish the ruling party over. “Economic hardship being faced by voters is in fact a big reason for the Congress’s rise. When asked about the financial condition of their household, over half the voters (56%) said their total household income was not enough to meet their needs,” the release said. “This sentiment was found to be prevailing across nearly all castes and communities and perhaps explains the Congress’s improved performance among communities that have traditionally not voted for it.”
This unhappiness over Modi’s governance is specifically spelled out: The survey found that satisfaction with Modi’s administration has fallen from 67% in August to just 47% now. Similarly, satisfaction with the Vijay Rupani government has also nosedived, going from 69% in August to 53% now.
“Also a matter of concern for the BJP should be the finding that three in every five voters now believe that the Narendra Modi government has failed in bringing Achhe Din as opposed to one in every two in October,” the release said. “It seems that India’s rise in World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking, Moody’s ratings upgrade for the Indian economy, and the concessions given by the government with regard to GST, have not really improved voters’s perception of Modi’s performance.”
Not everyone is convinced of course. Other opinion polls carried out between October and November have wildly varying numbers. Where Lokniti-CSDS found the two parties neck and neck, the India Today-Axis poll puts the difference in vote share as being 10 percent page points, with BJP ahead at 48%. TimesNow-VMR went even further, predicting a 52% vote share for the BJP while the Congress hauls in just 37% of the vote.
Any significant increase in the Congress share of both votes and seats, would however be a huge signal. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said just last week that the BJP winning even two fewer seats than the previous election will “stir questions”. Party president Amit Shah had set an ambitious target of 150 seats out of the 182 total in the Assembly. The BJP currently controls 120. If the CSDS-Lokniti survey is to be believed, and if the Congress continues to build on this momentum, the BJP can put aside hopes of a massive majority and will have to hope it wins enough votes to remain in power.