In less than a month’s time, Gujarat will be electing its new 182-member Assembly. As has been the case since 1995, the battle is expected to be between the ruling BJP and the Congress party.
Nevertheless, two recent opinion polls — Times Now-VMR and India Today-Axis My India — predict a comfortable margin of victory for the ruling party.
Congress will be hoping for the opinion polls to be proven wrong on counting day (18 December). But if that does not happen, the party will face its seventh consecutive defeat since 1990.
Congress’ electoral fortunes have been on a downward spiral since 1990, when it was booted out of power by the Janata Dal-BJP alliance.
Interestingly, Congress' descent to the bottom came just after it reached the pinnacle of electoral glory.
In the 1985 elections, the Congress won 149 out of the 182 seats — an unbroken record. In the 1990 polls, the party won 33 seats – its lowest ever tally – despite a three-cornered fight with the Janata Dal and BJP.
Since then, the party has failed to win more than one-third of the seats in the Assembly, its best tally being 61 seats in the 2012 polls.
But numbers alone cannot give the full picture of Congress’ decline in state elections.
To understand Congress’ electoral roller-coaster since the 1980s, one needs to understand the KHAM theory. KHAM stands for Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslims. Formulated by then Gujarat Congress chief Jinabhai Darji, KHAM intended to unite OBC communities, Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims as a formidable vote bank.
“Congress wanted more people from the backward communities to enjoy the fruits of democracy. Darji was following the path of Devraj Urs, who came up with the idea of caste-based formulas in Karnataka,” veteran political commentator Achyut Yagnik told Firstpost.
The KHAM theory helped the Congress win the 1980 and 1985 polls but alienated the Patidar community, which was electorally dominant until then. According to social scientist Ghanshyam Shah, the KHAM theory was an extension of the pro-poor programme of the Congress government.
“Congress distributed tickets proportional to their (KHAM) population. Not only that but the pro-poor image of Darji and Madhavsinh Solanki also helped the Congress garner votes from the marginalised communities,” he told Firstpost.
Both Yagnik and Shah believe that the KHAM theory was not explicitly anti-Patidar. But Shah added that the Patidars were already impacted by Congress’ idea to give more political representation to the backward communities. “Patidars are a land-owning community.
However, due to Indira Gandhi’s pro-poor policies, the issue of land reforms loomed large. This adversely affected the interests of Patidar leaders, who remained with Congress(O) after splitting with Indira. After the Emergency, these leaders joined the Janata Party,” Shah said.
Rise of Hindutva politics
While KHAM helped Congress win back-to-back elections in the 1980s, it also spelt doom for the party. In the 1980s, the Solanki government planned to introduced quota for the OBCs. However, this move was resisted by the Patidars and the upper castes. Anti-reservation riots took place across Gujarat in 1981 and 1985, when Solanki lost his chief ministership.
The 1985 riots in Ahmedabad are important in the context of BJP’s rise to power. “While it began on an anti-reservation plank, it quickly degenerated into a communal one because of the entry of the BJP,” Yagnik said. Yagnik added that riots in the late 80s and in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition communally polarised the state, which helped the BJP win the 1995 Assembly election.
Shah said that the BJP too played the Harijan, Adivasi and OBC card in the 1980s without claiming to do so. The BJP gave more representation to Harijans and Adivasis, while smartly penetrating into the Kshatriya vote bank, Shah said.
“The BJP used OBCs at the forefront for the Ayodhya movement. It also gave prominence to Dalit and Harijans during LK Advani’s Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya. This helped BJP trump the KHAM factor,” he added.
Hindutva helped BJP to increase its seat tally from nine in 1980 to 67 in 1990 and 121 in 1995.
Narendra Modi era
After Modi became the chief minister in October 2001, Congress has been struggling to find an equally strong match to counter him.
Under Modi, the BJP won three consecutive Assembly elections, a feat not achieved by any of the chief ministers in the past.
“It is not the BJP which is winning any election. It is in fact Modi who was winning all this while. There is a huge leadership crisis in Gujarat Congress which helped Modi to grow stronger and stronger,” Sanjay Kumar, director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies told Firstpost.
Yagnik made light of the fact that Modi developed no second rung leadership during his tenure. “When Modi was the chief minister, he was number one to ten. The next leader was number 11,” he said.
The lack of heavyweight leaders negatively impacted the Congress, Shah said.
Vote share not converting into seats
To its credit, Congress has been able to maintain a steady vote share in the last three Assembly elections.
The party has marginally been able to improve its seats tally too. After the communally polarised 2002 Assembly elections, where it could win only 51 seats, the Congress won 59 and 61 seats in the 2007 and 2012 polls respectively.
The margin of difference in the vote shares of the two parties has generally hovered at around 10 to 11 percent in the last three elections. However, the BJP has won double the number of seats than the Congress.
“In a bipolar contest, the leading party always has the chance to double its seat tally. Here, a 10 percent difference in vote share can be crucial,” Kumar said, adding that the vote bank for the Congress has remained intact in the last two decades.
For the Congress to be able to convert its vote share into sizable number of seats, Shah said that it needs to focus on managing constituency better.
“You cannot co-relate vote share and seat share. There were constituencies where Congress won by less than 5,000 votes too. The fight is expected to be neck-to-neck this time too,” Yagnik said.
2017 elections and Congress
All three experts believe that the upcoming election may be the best opportunity for the Congress to try its luck.
Several media reports indicate that a Rahul Gandhi-led Congress is already giving the BJP a run for its money. The BJP seems to be on the backfoot for the first time since it came to power in 1995.
Anti-incumbency, ongoing caste-centric agitations, along with Congress’ strategy to highlight alleged economic mismanagement by the Centre may add to Gujarat BJP’s re-election woes.
However, Kumar is doubtful about the disenchantment among the Patidar, Thakor and Dalit community converting into anti-BJP votes.
“It is difficult to say. Around 20 percent of the votes can get converted into anti-BJP votes. But I am doubtful whether the Congress will be able to win the election. But it is certainly giving a tough fight to the BJP for the first time,” Kumar said.
Yagnik said, “Congress is in better position right now not because of its own hardwork but due to the problems created by the BJP government. The reservation agitations are a symptom of it. Gujarati youths are unhappy due to ‘jobless growth’ in the state.”
Shah said that the BJP has always been good at managing election campaigns and will invoke “Gujarati Asmita” and the fact that Modi is India's prime minister to tide over the Congress’ challenge.
Updated Date: Nov 24, 2017 15:50 PM