Any talk of the resurgence of opposition parties in a state that has seen a smooth run of a non-competitive, one-party dominance for nearly two-and-a- half decades is certain to invite sarcasm or disbelief.
No wonder that the unexpected recent revival of a moribund opposition in Gujarat politics has aroused the curiosity of political observers.
Systematic Marginalisation of Opposition in Gujarat
Gujarat has had a bipolar polity for long with the Congress holding the main opposition space, occasionally joined by bit-part players like the Nationalist Congress Party. The Congress has been mostly invisible as an opposition except in the limited chairs it has come to occupy in the Vidhan Sabha since 1990. It formed a government on its own in Gujarat for the last time in 1985. In the subsequent six state elections, its tally oscillated in the range of 33 to 59 out of 182 Assembly seats.
Under the charismatic leadership of its three-time Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the politically hegemonic and ideologically aggressive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) caused a systematic marginalisation of all opposition to its politics. Interestingly, through its inept politics and ambivalence on Hindutva, the Congress facilitated its own marginalisation.
Gujarat’s electorate consistently returned the BJP to power in all elections since 1995, all through giving it at least 10 percent higher vote share than the Congress – a gap that increased to a whopping 27 percent in 2014 Lok Sabha election when the BJP made a clean sweep in all 26 seats, riding a popular wave in favour of making Modi, a Gujarati, the prime minister of India.
Aggression Exposes BJP’s Insecurities
In such circumstances, a repeat of the past should normally be a foregone conclusion for the forthcoming election to the Gujarat Assembly. However, if the top BJP leadership is unsure today about results, it is a clear indication of the first taste of success for the Congress in Gujarat in more than two decades.
Narendra Modi as the chief minister never cared to offer freebies and sops to voters; but the present Vijay Rupani-led government has been on a relentless spree of populist announcements for a month now.
Modi, who chose not to campaign in Gujarat at all during the 2014 parliamentary election, is forced to keep the reins of campaign in his own hands this time, giving symbolic roles to Chief Minister Rupani or his more active deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel.
Caste-Based Movement Punches Holes in Gujarat Growth Model
A combination of factors has galvanised the Congress and animated in it a faint hope of reaching within striking distance of power in Gujarat, despite its legislative party leader Shankarsinh Vaghela quitting the party three months back and more than a dozen of its MLAs walking over to the BJP.
Visible cracks have surfaced in the social architecture of Hindutva as well as in the Gujarat model of development patented by Narendra Modi.
The uncompromising and separate struggles for social justice (ambiguously articulated in demand for reservation, good quality public education, employment opportunities for the youth and containment of atrocities against Dalits) by young Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani to advance the interests their respective castes of Patidars, OBC Kshatriyas and Dalits have further widened these cracks.
The question of if even seemingly advanced and entrenched Patels are driven to seek OBC status on the back of a severe shrinkage of economic and educational opportunities, then who has actually benefited from the so-called Gujarat model, has begun to rattle Modi and the BJP.
Bipolar Polity in Gujarat
- Marked by limited presence since 1990, Congress has been mostly invisible as an opposition party in Gujarat.
- If the top BJP leadership is unsure about results, it indicates electoral success for the Congress in Gujarat after more than two decades.
- A perpetually belligerent and proactive BJP has suddenly turned defensive and reactive on its pet themes of development and good governance.
- Cracks are evident in the social architecture of Hindutva as well as in the Gujarat model of development.
- Fundamental socio-economic contradictions between Patidars and OBC Kshatriyas might throw a spanner in the works for Congress.
Congress Hopeful of Rainbow Caste Alliance
The remarkable response to the young trio’s campaign to defeat the BJP in the next election has unsettled the coalition of castes and communities (except the minorities) that the party nurtured over the previous two decades in the name of supposedly amalgamated Hindu identity.
Different categories of Patidars, constituting about 15 percent of the electorate, have been unswerving supporters of the BJP since the late ‘70s. Hardik’s appeal among Patidar youth and farmers in particular has opened up a totally unimagined possibility of Patel votes in favour of the Congress.
The long-standing fundamental socio-economic contradictions between Patidars and OBC Kshatriyas might throw a spanner in the works. However, the willingness of the Congress to create a rainbow caste alliance is borne out of its original vision of KHAM ( Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) politics that caste polarisation is the most effective anti-dote to religious polarisation by the BJP.
Focus of Campaign on Accountability and Governance
The Congress and its Vice President Rahul Gandhi have taken the BJP head-on in their campaign centering around its economic ideology and performance. They have avoided attacking the BJP on emotive Hindutva issues, fearing that it could reinforce its stereotyped image as anti-Hindu, Muslim-appeaser party in popular Gujarati psyche.
The party’s social media campaign showing Modi’s development model as crazy and deceptive has been received well.
An alternative narrative on issues of accountability, governance and socio-economic development is being built. Government’s withdrawal from obligations to the poor, depravity of a large-scale transfer of public assets in education and health sectors to private players, reduced agricultural subsidies and ever increasing largess to the big business are not just themes of academic discourse but key issues of Congress campaign in Gujarat.
Will BJP Realise ‘Congress-Mukt Bharat’ Dream?
It is unclear as to whether an upset is awaiting the BJP on the counting day of 18 December. If the Congress manages to win this election by a whisker, it would face the daunting challenge of doing what it has been saying, against internal contradictions.
If it loses, then too it would face an equally daunting challenge of building up a credible state-level leadership as well as cadres that could match the BJP’s mammoth organisational strength. Either way, the present trends suggest that the BJP’s cherished dream of a Congress-mukt (Congress-free) India might elude it even in its Gujarat bastion.
(The writer is Professor, Department of Political Science, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda. He can be reached @Amit_Dholakia . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.