Gujarat Assembly Election in India – December 2017

The Gujarat state elections in December 2017 were extremely important, not just for the state of Gujarat, but also to gauge the national political landscape. This was the sixth consecutive term that the BJP was attempting to keep power in the state. With the 2019 General Elections in view, Gujarat elections had the potential to say a lot about the successes and failures of national parties. Is the stunted economic growth hurting the ruling party-BJP? Is there an anti-incumbency factor to sway the numbers in favor of the Congress party? Answers to these and many similar questions were sought in the December 2017 State elections of Gujarat.

Even though the Gujarat state elections did not provide clear answers to all questions, it definitely, or for the time being, answered some questions emphatically. Before the election, a host of political analysts from the CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies)[1] observed a spike in approval ratings and favorability for the Congress party Party. The BJP had ruled over the Gujarat State Assembly for five consecutive times. Surely an anti-incumbency factor was developing. But apart from that, the support for the Congress party, or the anti-BJP forces was much stronger than they were expected to be.

The answer to this surprising surge of Congress party support actually lies in a strategy used by Congress party, one with roots in the 1980s. The 1980s marked the very beginning of caste-based politics. Congress party leader Madhavsinh Solanki, in the 1980, formed the famous (or infamous) KHAM alliance.[2] The KHAM is an acronym for Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim. These castes and religions cover the majority of the minorities in India. The alliance was designed in such a way, that the population belonging to these castes and religions almost definitely voted for the Congress party. In return, the state government of Gujarat, then under control of the Congress party, guaranteed a ‘reservation quota’ for these communities. Through this KHAM strategy the Congress party traded in meritocracy to buy political capital and create vote banks. With the full backing of the minority community and some support from the majority community, the Congress-KHAM alliance worked wonders throughout the 1980s. During the 1980s, the Patidars (Patels[3]) fiercely opposed the formation of such an alliance. The KHAM-congress arrangement had nothing in it for the Patidars, which caused a loss of influence within the Patidar community. Patidar leaders, back then, based their resistance to this alliance on the argument that such alliances cause communal polarization and disrupt peaceful social orders. Eventually the majority turned on the Congress party and the party paid the price of this strategy since BJP got elected for five consecutive terms after the 80s.

This sixth time it was different. This time, the Patidars led by Hardik Patel took a different stand. The Patidars joined the KHAM alliance- with the Congress party party assuring them a completion of their demands if elected to power[4]– with hopes to increase their political influence over the state. The Patidar protests had been gathering speed and momentum from 2015 through 2017, demanding reservation quotas for the Patidar community. If the demands of Hardik Patel were to be realized, the percentage of reservation quota would exceed 50% (currently the percentage stands at 49.6 in Gujarat). A reservation quota of more than 50% directly contradicts the Supreme Court order of 1992 in the Indira Sawhney Case[5]. Senior advocates like Harish N Salve have come out against the Patidar demands saying that the demands are fundamentally unconstitutional and a direct violation of a Supreme Court ruling.[6]

The Congress party’s concession to Hardik Patel to meet his demands in support of him turning the ‘Patel’ votes (15% of the population in Gujarat) in the favor of the Congress party compromised the Congress party’s commitment to uphold the constitution and the Supreme Court. In return they got the support of Hardik Patel, thus ensuring the rural Patel vote going to them. The Patidar-Congress alliance worked perfectly in communal polarization and turned Saurashtra (South West Gujarat) in the favor of the Congress party.[7] Along with the Patidars, the Congress party also made alliances with castes like the Dalits and the OBCs and leaders like Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. Thus the Congress party formed a KHAM-similar strategy, with additional support by the Patidars, and entered the battleground in Gujarat.

With a communally charged environment, the BJP, with no alliance with any caste or religion and a commitment to uphold the Supreme Court decision of 1992 at the cost of popularity, seemed grossly disadvantaged. A combination of the Saurashtra Patidar constituencies and the rural east of the state, a Congress party stronghold from 2012,[8] made it seem like the BJP was going to lose its decades long majority in the rich western state. The Congress party as well as the BJP used their big name leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. After tireless campaigning, accusatory rhetoric and a drawn out election, the result was eagerly awaited.

The BJP held on to their majority in the state. With 99 out of a 182 seats, the BJP was elected for the sixth consecutive time to the State Assembly, a historic achievement in the nation’s history. This was one of the most testing elections for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Contesting in his own home-state, with one of the most communally charged environment conspiring against him, the Gujarat victory was a decisive one for PM Modi. A victory in Gujarat, with all minority communities turned against the BJP and the Congress party agreeing to satisfy unconstitutional demands for these very “minority” communities, was a testament to BJP’s popularity and stronghold over the state and the nation in general. Putting this in context of the 2019 election, the Gujarat election victory will concenter confidence in the BJP and in its faith in PM Modi’s leadership. This victory has answered the skepticism around Modi’s leadership. This victory has given a befitting answer to the Congress party, which once again tried to win an election by sowing seeds of communal disharmony. This victory in my view has set the tone for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

[1] Deshmane, Akshay; Caste Factor; Frontline http://www.frontline.in/cover-story/the-caste-factor/article9997626.ece

[2] Deshmane, Akshay; Caste Factor; Frontline http://www.frontline.in/cover-story/the-caste-factor/article9997626.ece

[3] The ‘Patel’ community cover almost 15-17% of Gujarat state’s population

[4] Langa Mahesh, The Hindu, November 22, 2017, http://www.thehindu.com/elections/gujarat-2017/hardik-patel-accepts-congress-quota-formula-for-patidars/article20632150.ece

[5] The Indira Sawhney Case https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court_Cases_Related_to_Reservation_in_India

[6]Team Republic, December 7, 2017 http://www.republicworld.com/s/14970/watch-harish-salve-says-congress-quota-promise-unconstitutional

[7] Republic World https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqC_pl5x8n0

[8] Republic World https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqC_pl5x8n0

 

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