The highlight of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's two-day trip to Gujarat was his visit to the Statue of Unity for the birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on 31 October. However, his visit also coincided with another important development in the state – the ongoing by-elections to eight Assembly seats.
Many see Modi's visit as an attempt to add weight to the BJP's campaign for the eight bypolls scheduled for 3 November and a proof of the party's nervousness.
Barely a few weeks back, Union Home Minister Amit Shah also visited the state, his first visit to Gujarat in six months, another indication that BJP’s top leadership is taking the bypolls extremely seriously.
The bypolls were necessitated after eight Congress MLAs resigned in the run-up to the Rajya Sabha elections earlier this year.
The eight seats are Abdasa in Kutch, Morbi, Dhari in Amreli distict, Gadhada in Botad district, Karjan in Vadodara, Dangs, Kaprada in Valsad district and Limbdi in Surendranagar district.
Why Is the BJP Nervous?
On the surface, there should be no reason for the BJP to be nervous about the bypolls.
The party has a stable majority in the Assembly with 103 seats out of 182. All the eight seats were earlier with the Congress, so any win would actually be a bonus for the BJP.
Being the ruling party at the state level, the BJP always had an advantage when it came to the bypolls. It has won over three-fourths of the bypolls conducted in Gujarat since 2009.
Despite this, the party still appears to be nervous and the reason is the Congress' resilience in the state.
BJP has won over three-fourth of the bypolls held in Gujarat since 2009.
What Explains the Congress' Resilience in Gujarat?
The Congress' resilience in Gujarat is a political enigma. The party has been out of power in the state for 25 years now.
The 2017 Assembly polls was its strongest performance, winning 77 seats. But since then, a series of defections has left the party depleted. Despite that, the party remains a formidable challenge to the BJP. How?
Congress has consistently maintained a vote share of over 35 percent in Assembly polls in Gujarat, despite defections and being out of power.
The Congress has consistently retained a vote share of over 35 percent in the state. This means that a small swing in its favour could be a threat to the BJP.
The fact that the party doesn't have a single central leader has also been its advantage as defections have harmed it less.
Even in 2017, several MLAs defected on the eve of a crucial Rajya Sabha poll. Instead of weakening, the party came out stronger and not just won the Rajya Sabha polls but also gave the BJP a scare in the Assembly polls later that year.
The Congress vote is basically the vote of those alienated by the BJP during its 25-year rule in the state. The reality is that despite its dominance in Gujarat, the BJP has alienated several sections – farmers, Dalits, tribal communities and more recently unemployed youth cutting across communities.
The BJP in Gujarat has alienated several sections like farmers, tribals, Dalits and unemployed youth.
The BJP has steadily lost ground in rural Saurashtra – it was almost wiped out in this area in 2017.
It has historically performed poorly in tribal dominated seats as well.
The BJP’s dominance in Gujarat has largely been due to its stranglehold over cities, especially those in central and south Gujarat.
How Could Play Out in the Bypolls?
In the ongoing bypolls, all eight seats are rural or semi-rural.
Four seats are from rural Saurashtra – Morbi, Dhari, Gadhada and Limbdi – and two are reserved ST seats – Dangs and Kaprada. These are areas where the BJP performed poorly in 2017.
Therefore, the Congress would hope to do well, considering it won’t have to face BJP’s urban advantage.
In the two ST seats, it faces the additional challenge of Jhagadia MLA Chhotubhai Vasava’s Bharatiya Tribal Party that has been on the rise over the last five years in regions with the Bhils’ concentration of Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Despite recent defections, the Gujarat Congress has managed to hold ground due to the collective leadership of PCC chief Amit Chavda, Leader of Opposition Paresh Dhanani and Working President Hardik Patel.
Patel has emerged as a major crowd-puller for the Congress. Even during the recent bypoll campaign, Patel attracted huge crowds during his roadshow at Karjan.
The BJP is afraid that a strong showing by the Congress in the bypolls, winning four seats or more, could give the party momentum ahead of the next major milestone – the local body polls. These elections were due now but have been postponed by a few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If Congress does well in the bypolls and later the local body polls, it may be able to tap into the anger of farmers and the unemployed youth and make matters difficult for the BJP in build-up to the Assembly polls two years from now.
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