For once, state elections have not belied the exit polls. The Bharatiya Janata Party has, predictably, retained Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf of Gujarat with a comfortable vote margin of almost 8%. The Congress, however, has reasons to rejoice in defeat. It gave its adversary a tough battle, and increased its presence across the state’s sub-regions, winning Saurashtra for the first time in decades.
Here’s a close look at the local and sub-regional trends in this election.
The first bit of significant information about these elections is the decline in participation. Contrary to most states that have gone to the polls since 2014, voter participation in Gujarat has decreased by three points, from 71.3% to 68.5%. The erosion in the turnout is more pronounced among women (3%), which is also specific to Gujarat. In most other states, the participation of women converges or surpasses the participation of men.
It is possible that the discontent that the BJP faced among sections of its supporters translated to eligible voters showing little enthusiasm for voting. This is supported by the fall in the turnout in urban areas (by nearly seven points) and semi-urban areas (by nearly five points).
There are also significant sub-regional variations. If the decline in the voter turnout is mild across most regions, it is pronounced in the Saurashtra-Kutch region, where it dropped from 69.3% to 64.4%. This is significant as this is the only sub-region where the Congress outperformed the BJP in terms of seats and vote share. Among Gujarat’s sub-regions, Saurashtra has been the most affected by the agrarian crisis. Patel farmers have been hit in recent years by the lowering prices of agricultural products and have harboured a deep resentment against the BJP.
A lower turnout in that sub-region somewhat tames the claim of the Congress’s resurgence. The Congress performed well in Saurashtra-Kutch, but it was helped by a large disaffection for the BJP and its candidates. This is further confirmed by the following map, which reveals that voter turnout tends to be higher in areas where the BJP emerged stronger.
Traditionally, the voter turnout in Gujarat has been higher in the tribal belt, running from the North to South in eastern Gujarat. In 2017, the turnout in seats in this belt were five points ahead of that in Scheduled Caste seats, and three points above general seats.
Increasing number of parties
Sixty-one parties contested these elections, which is an all-time high. However, voters concentrated most of their votes with the national parties, far more than they did in 2012, when rebel BJP leader Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party cut into the BJP’s vote share. There will be only four parties represented in the Vidhan Sabha this term, along with three independents MLAs.
The cumulative vote share of both national parties tends to be high in Gujarat. In 2017, less than 10% of voters cast their vote for a party other than a national party or for independent candidates. The higher the cumulative vote share, the less chances that third party candidates will cut across the vote base of candidates of either of the two national parties.
The total number of candidates also increased as a result of the growth of the number of contesting parties, and the large number of independent candidates (794). Barely any of them saved their deposit, as in previous elections.
Parties’ vote share performance: stable trends, with local variations
The first surprise of this election is the fact that contrary to all expectations, the BJP increased its overall vote share, from 47.8% in 2012, to 49.1%. The Congress also gained some vote share, from 38.9% to 41.4%, which does nothing to close the gap that separates the two parties since 1995. This apparent stability however hides some important variations.
First of all, the vote gap between the Congress and the BJP is misleading since the BJP’s votes are concentrated in urban seats, which it dominates. The BJP received 25% of its votes (3.17 million votes) in 39 urban constituencies. By contrast, the Congress won 57 out of the 98 rural seats, with 46% vote share, against 44.5% for the BJP.
Second, the average victory margin between urban, semi-urban and rural constituencies reveals that the election was more closely fought than what aggregate data suggest. Fifty-six seats were closely contested, with a victory margin below 5%. The BJP won 25 of those close contests, the Congress 29. Two were won by independents. Most of these close contests occurred in rural seats in Central and North Gujarat.
BJP candidates in cities won with high margins. Out of the 25 MLAs in cities who won with margins larger than 20%, 23 belonged to the BJP. 10 MLAs won with similar margins in semi-urban seats – with all but one (Nationalist Congress Party) belonging to the BJP. Only 12 rural seats saw victory margins larger than 20%. Seven were won by the BJP, four by Congress, and one by the Bharatiya Tribal Party.
The high vote share in urban seats combined with the lower turnout could indicate that disgruntled BJP voters stayed at home rather than vote for the Congress. One could speculate that a Congress victory might have been possible with a few enhanced numbers in those seats. In any case, a possible victory for the Congress was not as unreachable as the 8% gap in the vote share of both parties suggests.
Third, there are also some mild yet significant variations across sub-regions. The BJP’s performance is stable across the state. It scored an impressive 54% of the votes in South Gujarat, the state’s most industrialised sub-region. Overall, it has shown remarkable resilience, especially considering the anger that was expressed against it during the campaign.
The Congress improved its vote share substantially in Saurashtra, gaining more than 8% of vote share. It is otherwise stable everywhere else.
The vote share of political parties increased in South Gujarat, which is dominated by the BJP, as well as in southern Saurashtra, where the Congress registered the most gains. Overall, 30 MLAs won with vote shares more than 60%. Almost all are BJP MLAs and are either located in large cities or in the southern tip of the state.
Seat share: Congress narrows the gap
In terms of seat share, however, the performance of the two main contenders varies significantly. The BJP lost 16 seats to score its lowest seat share since 1990, at 54.4%. The Congress did not quite close the gap but narrowed it to 11 points, at 42.3%. This is the Congress’s best performance since 1985.
Here again sub-regional results show interesting variations. In Central, North and South Gujarat, the BJP has maintained its presence with a total of 76 seats, against 80 in 2012. The party lost 12 seats in Saurashtra and Kutch, from the 35 it had in 2012.
The Congress gained in every sub-region, except central Gujarat. It nearly doubled its tally in Saurashtra and Kutch, bagging 30 seats, against 16 in 2012. In that region, three incumbent BJP ministers bit the dust, including Chimanbhai Sapariya, Minister for Agriculture and Energy. The Congress also gained two seats in South Gujarat, a bastion of the BJP.
The relation between the BJP and cities and between the Congress and rural seats is quite clear in the following chart. The BJP bagged 85% of the urban seats, 67% of the semi-urban seats, and only 37% of the rural seats. The Congress, on the other hand, won 58% of the rural seats, establishing itself as a dominant force in the least favoured parts of the state.
Congress’ westward displacement
The geography of the results reveals a solid contrast of performance of both parties. The Congress, whose strongholds used to be in North Gujarat and in border districts, has shifted its presence westward. But as it gained a large number of seats in Saurashtra and Kutch, it lost half of its earlier strongholds in Mehsana and Sabarkanta districts. Sabarkanta was badly affected by floods last summer and the state government was credited for its swift handling of the situation.
The Congress has nearly swept Saurashtra, with the exception of the Rajkot area, historically a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP stronghold, where the current Chief Minister Vijay Rupani won with a hefty margin. The Congress also won the two seats previously won by the Gujarat Parivartan Party in the Saurashtra region.
Strong performance by incumbents
Contrary to previous years, both parties fielded a large number of their incumbent MLAs. Thirty sitting Congress MLAs contested, out of 61. Seventy-three incumbent BJP MLAs out of 115 also contested. Twenty-one Congress sitting MLAs were re-elected, and 48 BJP MLAs. Overall, 66% of the incumbents who contested these elections won their seats. This is a high ratio.
Turncoats fall by the wayside
Turncoats are a regular feature of electoral politics in Gujarat. This year, most turncoat candidates shifted from the Congress to the BJP. Shifting allegiance rarely pays off even if the shift was towards the winning party. In 2007, 17 BJP MLAs and 14 Congress MLAs deserted their parties. Only three of them, all former Congress members, were re-elected on BJP tickets. In 2012, 15 Congress MLAs sought greener pastures. Only two of them were re-elected. In this election, only four of the 12 Congress turncoats were re-elected.
Beyond that phenomenon, both parties succeeded in retaining a fair amount of their seats. The BJP retained 81 of the seats it previously held, lost 33 seats to Congress candidates and two to other parties. The Congress retained 42 of the 61 seats it previously held, lost 16 seats to the BJP and two to other parties.
A nod for NOTA
Nearly 2% of the electorate pressed the NOTA or None of the Above button. Eleven constituencies returned a NOTA score between 3% and 5%. Nine of those seats are clustered in the eastern-most tip of the tribal belt. Overall, the NOTA score is greater than the victory margin in 25 seats, hypothetically costing 10 seats to the Congress and 15 seats to the BJP.
Much was said about the caste strategies of political parties. Both Congress and BJP pandered essentially to three castes categorised as Other Backward Classes – Kolis, Kshatriyas and Thakor – and Patels, distributing the bulk of their tickets to these groups. In terms of caste groups, the Other Backward Classes, who were favoured by both parties, have increased their representation by nearly 14 points, from 22% in 2012 to 35.7% in 2017. Ironically, the representation of Patels has decreased from 30.3% to 24.7%.
If the upper caste category is broken down, it is evident that nearly 80% of the seats occupied by upper castes are either occupied by Rajputs or Brahmins.
Though the representation of Patels has declined, they remain ahead of most other groups in the Vidhan Sabha, notably the Other Backward Classes.
The new Assembly has 43 Patels (27 with the BJP), 20 Kolis (11 with the BJP), 16 Kshatriyas (8 with the BJP) and 27 upper castes, nearly all but four with the BJP.
The number of Muslims remains extremely low. Three of the six Muslim candidates fielded by Congress won their seats. The BJP did not distribute a single ticket to Muslim candidates.
The missing women
The 2017 Gujarat elections saw the highest participation of women candidates ever recorded in the state – a paltry 7%. The BJP fielded 13 women candidates, against nine by the Congress. Thirteen women were elected in all. Eight of them belong to political families or to industrialist families. For instance, Santok Arethia, wife of Bhachubhai Patel, a Mumbai-based realtor, who won from Rapar.
Explaining the verdict
Overall, Gujarat has produced an ambivalent verdict. On the one hand, the BJP has shown remarkable resilience in the face of tremendous adversity – this election has perhaps been the greatest challenge it has faced in the state since it took power in the mid-1990s. On the other hand, the Congress can congratulate itself for having given a tough fight, gaining ground across the state and successfully reaping the anger of the Patels against the BJP.
The data reveals that this election has accentuated a number of past trends: the importance of the urban factor for the BJP, a growing class divide between urban and rural areas, and within castes living across those localities.
The main change is the shift of support of Patels from the BJP to the Congress. Survey data will reveal the extent of that shift. But it is already clear that Patels were the key to the Congress performance in Saurashtra, a region marred by a deep agrarian crisis. In the context of caste and class agitation, the Congress has displayed a new ability to assert itself against the BJP.
However, the Congress’s performance in Gujarat must be nuanced by the fact that it benefited from a lower turnout in Saurashtra and that, with the notable exception of the Patels, it failed to grab any voters from the BJP. Besides, not all Patel shifted towards the Congress – most of the poorer ones did.
This election reveals the deepening of the rift that separates those who have gained from the Gujarat model of development and those who are lagging behind. The anger directed against the BJP did not come from a reaction against its brand of nationalism or its rhetoric, but from its failure to meet the expectations that it raised among the electorate in 2014, particularly on the economic front.
The Congress now has the opportunity to fight future poll battles on issues that are both key to the BJP and voters, who have high expectations.
Whether the Gujarat verdict indicates that the Congress is battle-ready for 2019 is premature as each state election is specific. Under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress now has several opportunities in upcoming elections to convince other Opposition parties and voters that it should remain the centrepiece of an Opposition alliance in the next general elections.