DTE Coverage: In Gujarat Elections 2022, ‘issues’ don’t seem to matter any more

Why the ruling BJP comes across confident despite complaints of unemployment, price rise

By Joyjeet Das
Published: Monday 05 December 2022
Gujarat elections: Where ‘issues’ don’t seem to matter any more
A weekly haat in Gujarat. Photo: Joyjeet Das A weekly haat in Gujarat. Photo: Joyjeet Das

Voters in Gujarat exercised their franchise during the second phase of polling December 5, 2022. The counting of votes will be held December 8. Down To Earth travelled across the state — from central Gujarat to Saurashtra — and found that while voters had complaints about governance, these did not become election ‘issues’.

Inflation and joblessness top the list of worries. The COVID-19 pandemic was particularly hard-hitting. And before that was demonetisation — a major talking (and voting) point in the 2017 Assembly elections.

“Prices have risen to back-breaking levels,” said Anilsinh, who runs a small shop near Morva Hadaf — a blink-and-you-miss taluka in the Panchmahal district, known for a large tribal population.

Sinh sells white clothes and other material required for funerals. He also stocks knick-knacks and some groceries. Business has been tough since demonetisation and nobody seems to care, he insists: “Neither Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), nor the Congress.”

The greenery around him hosts food crops like maize, millets and even paddy as well as cash crops like mustard. But it is hard to profit from farming.

Selling prices have not matched increases in costs of fertilisers and other inputs, said Mukund Patel, a small farmer at a weekly market in the middle of nowhere.

“The Modi government doles out Rs 2,000 every four months. But in between, everything is sucked out of us,” Patel complained. But he did not think that would reflect in the election results.

He mentioned the lack of an opposition that can match the incumbent BJP’s heft, a factor that recurred across the state. Then there are mitigating steps — like the free ration that the government arranged for during the pandemic.

Read Jai Jai Garvi Gujarat

The issue of quota for economically weaker sections (EWS), recently resolved by the Supreme Court, will also help the BJP win back a large section of the influential Patidar community that deserted it the last time. Many seats in the Patel agricultural belt, including Hardik Patel’s Viramgam, seemed set to vote BJP.

Patel, the face of the Patidar agitation, is now on a BJP ticket and reportedly claims that the EWS quota will take care of most of the “issues” that his community had with the ruling side.

Alpesh Thakor, who floated the Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena to demand reservations for Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, was a Congress legislator in 2017. He is also a BJP candidate from Gandhinagar this time.

That has left Jignesh Mevani as the only part of the young troika, the challenged saffron five years ago, on the Congress side. He is trying to keep his Vadgam seat. All three voted December 5.

Rising prices and the lack of employment opportunities have resonated with urban voters as well, perhaps more than their rural counterparts. Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the new kid on Gujarat’s political block, has gone all out to exploit such sentiments.

Its promises of Delhi-like freebies have resonated even with the quite well-off middle class. “Of course, I want subsidies,” said a Surat-based journalist, who paid Rs 1,800 a month for piped cooking gas. “If the industrialists can get freebies, why not the common people like us?” he asked.

Does that mean AAP will be a challenger? “It has generated a lot of curiosity for sure, but how much of it will translate into votes has to be seen,” he said.

AAP has been unable to set up an organisational structure in the state, several analysts pointed out. For the party, a generous vote share in Gujarat will be achievement enough this time around and give it a leg-up in its aim to register as a national party.

That voteshare will come from the kitty of others. “If it manages around 5-7 per cent, it will mostly be off the Congress; but if it manages 10-12 per cent, the BJP should be wary,” said Kaushik Mehta, former editor of Gujarati newspaper Phulchhab.

The Arvind Kejriwal-led party may not win more than a handful of seats but can be a deciding factor in 20-25 seats, he predicted. That may turn out to be crucial in a House of 182 where BJP’s original tally was 99 in 2017. The ruling party later took its tally to a comfortable 110, attracting opposition members and drawing howls of protests from the Congress.

The site of the broken bridge in Morbi, Gujarat. Photo: Joyjeet Das

The Grand Old Party promised to be more “vigilant” this time but also betrayed a lack of confidence. “It is the job of the Election Commission and the state government to hold free and fair elections,” said Congress leader Pawan Khera at a press conference in Ahmedabad, when he was asked how the party would prevent malpractices.

The BJP was using the state police and homeguards to handle voting machines and it was unethical, Khera complained.

The Congress will cash in on popular disenchantment and win a whopping 125 seats this time, claimed Raghu Sharma who has been given the charge of Gujarat by the All India Congress Committee. But a large part of the “disenchanted” voters did not seem interested. “I will vote NOTA,” said Rashmi Das, who has been in Ahmedabad for nearly three decades and have issues with how the state has been governed.

A generation of BJP rule

The opposition seemed particularly out of touch with the Gujarati youth despite complaints of lack of jobs. For a generation, which has never been governed by anybody other than the BJP — Congress’ Chhabildas Mehta was the last non-BJP chief minister (March 1995) — the BJP seems to be the natural choice.

Many of them, especially from the upper stratas, wrote down COVID-19 deaths as inevitable. What about Morbi, where a bridge collapsed to kill scores in the run up to the elections? “That’s a municipal issue,” said Pran Mehta, a youth from Rajkot.

A local panna pramukh — in charge of voters listed on one single page — claimed the government’s “development” work trumped “accidents” like Morbi. “Business there is thriving, nobody has complaints.” The district is a hub for the country’s ceramic tiles industry.

Above all is the personality cult. “At the end of the day, voting BJP means voting Modi. Look at what all he has done for us; look at the Metro. All this is for us, not for his personal use,” said Manusinh, while riding his autorickshaw.

Why then would Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi still need to hold a 50-kilometre rally in the Gujarat capital? Why would seats still remain at his rallies as well as those of Union Home Minister Amit Shah?

Add to that a low voting turnout for the first phase (December 2), especially in urban Gujarat, and there are creases on the foreheads of BJP’s election managers. But if you ask them, they will say “all is well.”

*Names have been changed to protect identity

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