By Yogendra Yadav
CAN the BJP be defeated in Gujarat? Can the PM lose this critical election in his home state? Can the national political narrative undergo a sudden change?
I would have dismissed this speculation a couple of months ago. The BJP is not just a ruling party in Gujarat. It is as well entrenched in the state as the Left Front used to be in West Bengal. The BJP has not lost a single election here since its stunning victory in the Lok Sabha elections of 1991. It has managed to maintain a solid lead of about 10 percentage points over the Congress in the five Assembly elections since. The BJP’s dominance is not limited to winning elections: it has established total control over Gujarat society — from industry and trade to cooperatives, media and intellectuals. Its rival, the Congress, in contrast, has appeared the most listless opposition imaginable.
So, I was somewhat inattentive to news from Gujarat. One more BJP victory, and that too when the PM was from Gujarat, was a foregone conclusion. When an early survey by the CSDS team in August projected a massive lead for the BJP, it looked unassailable. As in the case of the Left Front, during its heydays in West Bengal, its victory was no news. By the same logic, its defeat would be an earthquake. But then, earthquakes don’t happen every day.
It is not that all was very well in Gujarat. Everyone knows that the famous ‘Gujarat model’ was a lot of hype about some real, but modest, achievements. Gujarat was, and continues to be, a middle performing state on social indicators like education and health. This model has done particularly little for the farmers. The state had witnessed very powerful farmer protests, even when Mr Modi was the CM. After Mr Modi’s ascent to Delhi, things clearly worsened in Gujarat. Meanwhile, rural distress intensified. The government failed to provide adequate relief, or even fully acknowledge, two consecutive droughts. For the past year, Gujarat has been in turmoil.
Anywhere else, this would have meant electoral defeat for the ruling party. But Gujarat was different, or so I thought. It is not enough for people to be resentful, disillusioned and even angry with the government for the BJP to lose elections. The Congress party of Gujarat looked like the perfect opposition that the BJP could have asked for: without any vision, strategy or a credible leader. I used to say to anyone who brought news of BJP’s impending defeat from Gujarat: ‘Don’t tell me that people are unhappy. Tell me, are they so angry that they would vote anyone to defeat the BJP? Would they vote even the Congress?’
Now I think they might. It seems the unthinkable might happen, just as it did for the Left Front. The most likely outcome of the coming elections in Gujarat is a clear defeat for the BJP and, consequently, a clear victory for the Congress.
Let me hasten to add that this conclusion is not based on my subjective assessment or political preference. I draw my inferences from some of the surveys in the public domain, mainly a series of three ‘tracker’ polls by Lokniti-CSDS team for ABP News. All three surveys have a decent and representative (randomly drawn) sample of about 3,500 respondents from 50 constituencies spread all over the state. I use this data, not just because I trust its record of capturing vote shares reasonably accurately (with the exception of the recent Uttar Pradesh elections), but also because this survey has made public all its findings in a fairly transparent way. (I was involved in the founding of the Lokniti-CSDS survey team, but have had no association with it for the past four years.)
The first round of this tracker poll, conducted in the first half of August, found the BJP enjoying a whopping 30 percentage points lead over the Congress. The report changed dramatically in the second round held in October, when the CSDS team reported that the BJP’s lead had come down to just 6 percentage points. Was it an erratic reading or a trend? The question has been answered by the latest round held in the last week of November. The third round reports that the lead is down to nil now as both parties are tied at 43 per cent vote share each. To be fair, the CSDS team does not predict a BJP defeat. In fact, it projects 91-99 seats for the BJP, if elections were held last week. What would happen on the polling day? The survey does not answer it.
This trend suggests a clear defeat for the BJP. A clear and consistent trend like this is usually not reversed in the last week of elections. Usually, it gets intensified. So, from zero lead, the BJP is likely to move a negative lead. In a strange two-party contest, a four-point lead or more would be enough to give a clear victory to the Congress. We must also note that pre-poll surveys tend to over-estimate the ruling party. So, we could be looking at a bigger margin than we can project at this stage.
This headline projection is corroborated by many other findings of this survey. The approval ratings of the Gujarat Government have fallen consistently and have now crossed the danger line. Voters who wanted to give this government another chance are now outnumbered by those who don’t. Personality does not seem to be a key factor this time. The popularity ratings of the CM are pretty low, though he is still ahead of all his rivals. Even the PM’s ratings and those of his government have dropped, though he continues to be the most popular leader. Distractions like Hardik Patel’s CDs or communal issues have not had any salience. What this survey also brings out is the real issue of this election: it’s all about economy. The voters are concerned about unemployment and price rise, a euphemism for lack of purchasing power.
It’s not just this survey. Credible ground reports from Gujarat reinforce this conclusion. BJP election rallies, including those of the PM himself, are drawing very poor crowds. At the same time, those of Hardik Patel’s are drawing big crowds. Farmers’ anger in the wake of the latest crash of groundnut and cotton prices is palpable, as is the sense of betrayal felt by Gujarati businessmen.
Can something still change? Mr Modi’s rallies do not seem to be re-creating the whole magic. What about rigging? I am not among those who floated the EVM conspiracy theory during Punjab and UP elections. In any case, VVPAT machines and random-matching of the slips with machine count should take care of that.