After months of displaying anti-incumbency on the streets, the voters of Surat eventually chose the Bharatiya Janata Party. The ruling party – set to win the Gujarat Assembly election with 99 seats today – took 15 of 16 constituencies in Surat district, leaving just the reserved Scheduled Tribe seat of Mandvi to the Congress. The BJP won all nine constituencies of urban Surat, with significant margins.
The verdict has left Congress and Patidar leaders in India’s textile city stumped.
In mid-year, Surat’s textile markets were the epicentre of protests and strikes against the Narendra Modi government’s implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, which caused heavy economic disruption for over 65,000 textile traders in the city. Many of the traders are Patidars, and in the past six months Surat’s Patidars had been turning out in large numbers to show support for Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti. Anger against the BJP seemed so strong that on many occasions, Patidar youth disrupted the BJP’s rallies and came to blows with BJP workers, particularly in Varaccha Road constituency.
On December 3, Hardik Patel’s 30-km bike rally through six of Surat’s constituencies drew out thousands of Patidar supporters. The Samiti’s leaders announced they were confident that the Congress would win at least four seats in the city – Varaccha, Katargam, Kamrej, Surat North. In the end, the BJP won them all. In Katargam, the party won by over 79,230 votes.
The Congress and Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti leaders struggled to express their shock.
‘It looked like we had an advantage’
“We have no idea why this has happened, we are so shocked,” said Alpesh Kathiriya, the Surat convener for the Samiti. “There is not much we can do now. The people were so angry with the [BJP] government. We don’t know what factors have led to these results.”
Kadir Pirzada, a senior Congress leader from Surat, described the city’s verdict as “completely unexpected”. “All this while the people of Surat came out on the roads to protest against GST, they didn’t let BJP candidates campaign, they expressed so much anger – and even after that they voted for BJP,” he said. Over the past 22 years of the BJP’s rule in Gujarat, Pirzada said, the Congress had often felt it was no longer a part of the electoral equation. “But this time, it looked like we had an advantage,” he added, “so there is a lot of confusion about these results.”
Other Congress leaders in Surat chose to focus on the party’s improved performance in the rest of Gujarat, even though it was not able to form a government. In the 2012 election, the BJP had won 116 seats and the Congress 60. This election, as of Monday evening, the BJP had secured 97 seats and was leading on two, while the Congress was poised to win 77 seats in all.
“There was nothing amiss in the campaigns by Congress and Hardik Patel in Surat,” said Hasmukh Desai, president of the Congress in Surat city. “But perhaps voters thought that if they didn’t elect the BJP, it would affect the functioning of the state, considering Modi is in power at the Centre.”
‘They cannot give up Hindutva’
Ahmedabad-based political scientist Ghanshyam Shah too was surprised by the BJP sweeping Surat. “I was expecting Congress to do better in the city,” he said. “But a lot of the anger about demonetisation is history now, and the businessmen affected by GST are all too deeply immersed in Hindutva. My reading is they voted for BJP because they cannot give up their Hindutva agenda.”
For now, Desai said he is comforting himself with what he calls the positive side of the election. “The public gave Rahul Gandhi a lot of support when he visited Gujarat,” he said. “And at least now we will be able to form a strong opposition.”