Gujrat and Himachal Assembly Elections – are there any surprises locked in the EVM?

As I write this piece the polling for the second and last phase of Gujrat election is taking place. While Gujrat polled for the first phase on 1st December, polling for Himachal Pradesh was already over three weeks back. Let’s have a quick view if there are any surprises locked in the EVM.

First, Gujrat:

From Bhartiya Janata Party’s point of view, it is a boring election where its real battle is against itself. Gujarat has been a BJP citadel for almost three decades, and except West Bengal’s left rule from 1977 to 2011, no major Indian state has had such continuous rule by any non-Congress party. The architect of this ascent is one man – Narendra Modi.

After such a long period of rule, one would expect natural anti-incumbency. To counter this, BJP has denied tickets to nearly 30 percent of its legislators and bring fresh blood in, a strategy that the party has adopted since 2014 in almost every poll bound state. A year back, BJP brought in Bhupendra Patel as CM and changed the entire state cabinet. However, this strategy, denial of tickets to the sitting MLAs to fight anti-incumbency, has a mixed record for BJP. While it worked fantastically in UP, Uttarakhand and Assam, it didn’t do so well in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh which the BJP had held successfully for many years.

In Gujrat, it will not necessarily be a decisive one as winning or losing depends entirely on the performance of the national leadership, that is, the Narendra Modi led central government.

However, when the top leadership has popular support, incumbency helps rather than harming. Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to be the most popular leader of India. The party’s campaign continues to rest on the Modi’s persona and his Gujarat connect. People, whether at the state or at central levels vote for him, not even the BJP. And if this is the case, the anti-incumbency factor for the sitting BJP legislators is not really a big factor as it is made out to be.

Historically, Gujarat electoral politics is a stable two-party system in which the Congress holds the second pole, and the state has had no space for a third force. Even during Modi’s popular regime, Congress’s vote-share hovered around 40%, even in losing causes. Throughout the Sonia Gandhi era, the Congress may never have won Gujarat, but it always had a dependable core vote bank, and the man behind this hold was her trusted wazir, Ahmed Bhai Patel. It’s been two years since the Congress’ veteran leader and trouble-shooter Ahmed Patel passed away.

For the Congress, this is also the first major election on the back of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. In 2017, he was the Party president and gave the BJP a close run, winning 77 seats, just 22 less than the BJP – Congress’s best performance in the state since 1990. This time, he has almost stayed away, or been kept away. Compared to 2017, the Congress campaign has been low-key and despite umpteen strategies, it has failed to fight on Local Issues. Rahul Gandhi has been getting crowds in his Yatra, but that would not translate into votes in Gujrat.

It raises a serious question on the Congress’s strategy – if it is willingly surrendering the opposition space of a key ideological battleground state to their ideological ally AAP, as they did in Delhi? It may sound totally absurd, but all actions suggest so, and Congress high command can go to any stretch to uproot Narendra Modi from Gujrat.

Aam Aadmi Party’s entry into the fray has turned the elections this time into a three-cornered fight, or at least it seems so, Arvind Kejriwal is attempting to challenge this two-party system and we are witnessing a new push to reshape the rules of the political chessboard in Gujarat. In 2017, AAP contested on 29 seats, losing their deposit on all of them. However, this time, AAP is gaining some traction at the cost of a terminally sick Congress.

Gujarat is an important test case. The AAP succeeded in taking over the Congress vote in Delhi and Punjab. Kejriwal is now trying to do the same in Gujarat. There are no doubts that the AAP has brought a great deal of aggression to the contest, if not on the ground so much, in the media certainly. The AAP’s key message to Gujarati voters is that it can be a more effective challenge to the BJP than the Congress by positioning itself as the party of the underclass.

The AAP has been wooing the voters in the constituency by showcasing Arvind Kejriwal’s Delhi model of governance and making a host of pre-poll promises which include free electricity up to 300 units per month, healthcare services, free and quality education, and a million jobs.

The challenge for the AAP is that it doesn’t have enough foothold on the ground. The broom symbol seems most visible in Saurashtra, the bastion of Gujarat’s powerful Patidar community that has been the bulwark of BJP’s dominance in the state since the 1990s. It is among Patidars and the Minorities that the AAP is making its first inroads now.

It would be interesting to see how much of the Congress vote bank shifts to the AAP splitting the anti-BJP-opposition vote. Will the AAP be able to dent the poll prospects of the Congress by cutting into its votes especially those of the minority community? If so, it may give them a vote percentage in two digits, but only a handful of seats. Such a scenario would yield BJP a much handsome victory, and, set up the AAP as the challenger displacing the Congress, the next time round.

Vote Share47% (±3)36% (±3)9% (±3)8% (±3)
Seats123 (±5)48 (±4)7 (±3)4 (±2)

Himachal Pradesh:

Himachal went to polls on November 12. The counting of votes will be held on December 8. Himachal has a trend of electing a new government every five years and the incumbent BJP is looking to change this pattern. Does the high voter turnout of 76% votes mean that the custom of alternating power changing?

Congress views it in its favour – a positive influence of its scheme to grant Rs 1500 per month to women and Rs 680 crores start up scheme, which will benefit the youths including women entrepreneurs. The Congress is primarily banking on continuity of the rotational pattern of anti-incumbency in the state, coupled with its guarantees to implement the Old Pension scheme (OPS), and provide one lakh jobs within first 10 days of the government formation. The OPS has certainly worked against the BJP. To what extent, is to be seen.

In Himachal it was Priyanka who held back-to-back rallies across the length and width of the state, while her brother Rahul was busy with Bharat Jodo Yatra and having no time to campaign with his eyes set somewhere else.

The Congress tried to fight this election mainly on local issues, and on the failures of the Jai Ram Thakur government. It did not project a CM candidate owing to factionalism in the party and fought the elections under the united leadership of Pratibha Singh, wife of Virbhadra Singh. The concern for Congress in the state is that the state leadership is more interested in maintaining the dominance over the party than winning the election.

Meanwhile, the real concern for the BJP is the presence of 21 rebels, and a few of them have quite the potential to cause damage. It has fiercely jolted BJP’s prospects. The rebellion is rooted in BJP’s decision to deny tickets to 11 sitting MLAs and shift two ministers to other constituencies.

Few of these rebels have already been contacted by BJP to seek their support in case they get elected and the BJP falls short of majority. Whether the strategy of denial of tickets to the sitting MLAs to fight anti-incumbency, will be successful in Himachal Pradesh, cannot be said with certainty.

The BJP is viewing the higher turnout of women voters as impact of its welfare initiatives. Since 2014, women voters are genuinely skewed in favour of BJP. Women voters have outnumbered men in polling in Himachal since 1998 and the data culled out from the polling percentage shows similar trend this time too. There are 18 assembly constituencies, predominantly in Kangra and Mandi – two of the biggest districts where the women turnout was 8 to 15 per cent higher than the male voters. If this holds true, it is clear advantage BJP.

Himachal Pradesh
Vote Share45% (±3)41% (±3)14% (±2)
Seats35 (±4)30 (±3)3 (±2)

Three days from now we would know, if BJP has been able to change the pattern of Himachal, and more interestingly, how much dent AAP is inflicting on Congress in Gujrat. As it appears today, only the newly elected Congress President Mallikarjun Khadge ji is in my thoughts.

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