Close on the heels of the debacle in the Bihar state assembly election, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has suffered another serious setback, this time in the western state of Gujarat, which till recently was its impregnable fortress.
Recent elections to Gujarat’s civic bodies saw the BJP lose heavily to the Congress party in rural areas. Although it managed to retain control over urban bodies, even here it ceded ground to the Congress.
The election results have been widely described as a wake-up call for the BJP, which swept to power in national elections in May 2014 with an unprecedented majority. Throughout 2014, the BJP continued its winning streak, performing well in a string of elections to assemblies in key states such as Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand.
Then in February the tide turned. The BJP suffered a humiliating defeat in the Delhi assembly election where it secured just three of the 70 seats. This was followed by another stunning blow when it was swept aside by a four-party coalition in the Bihar elections.
The setback suffered by the BJP in what is merely an election to local civic bodies is nonetheless significant. This happened in Gujarat, which has been in the BJP’s unchallenged grip since 2000. This is the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As Gujarat’s chief minister between 2001 and 2014, Modi had led the BJP to landslide victories in every election held in the state since 2001.
Under him, the party won 115 of the 182 assembly seats in the last state elections in 2012 and swept all 26 seats in the general election last year. The BJP was firmly ensconced at every level of government in this state. That the blow came from this bastion would be all the more painful to the party.
Several issues contributed to the BJP’s declining electoral fortunes in Gujarat. For one, its campaign would have suffered without the contribution of the charismatic Modi. Chief Minister Anandiben Patel did not campaign with the same enthusiasm that he would in past local elections. Neither could she match his capacity to attract votes.
Analysts have also attributed the BJP’s below par performance in rural Gujarat to the alienation of the Patel community, which was agitating for caste quotas. The Gujarat government had dealt rather harshly with the protestors and leaders of the community urged voters to not vote for the BJP.
But more important has been the impact of the Gujarat government’s industry-friendly and urban-focused policies, which have resulted in rural problems being ignored. Rural Gujarat has been grappling with an agrarian crisis. Farmers are struggling to come with the devastating impact of droughts for two years in a row and falling cotton prices. With The government did not step in to help the farmers tide over the crisis. This cost it heavily in the elections.
More worryingly for the BJP, the rural disaffection with the party in Gujarat could spread to urban areas too. The much-vaunted Gujarat economic model may have contributed to higher economic growth rates but it has failed to create more jobs.
This may have been just a local election but its impact will be felt outside the state. The BJP leadership will ignore the message coming out of Gujarat to its peril.
For the Congress party, which was reduced to irrelevance in Gujarat’s politics over the past 20 years, the robust performance in rural Gujarat will come as a shot in the arm. Elections to the Gujarat state assembly are two years away and Congress leaders in the state will be tempted to ride on the back of the Patel agitation. Should it do so, it risks weakening its own traditional vote base.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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