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Contrary to Exit Polls, BJP and Congress Have Equal Chance in Gujarat

The Gujarat legislative assembly election 2017 has just been concluded for 182 constituencies with two phases of polling held on 9 December and 14 December 2017. The average voting turnout for both phases was 67.73%, which is 3.6 percentage points lower than 71.32% voting turnout witnessed in 2012 Gujarat assembly election. Results for this 2017 election are scheduled to get declare on 18 December 2017.

Soon after the conclusion of the two-phase polling, various media groups released their exit polls largely indicating that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is all set to come back to power with a majority in the 182-seat Gujarat Assembly. This has been the message of various exit polls although the predicted number of seats for the BJP varies: 99-113 in India Today-Axis, 109 in Times Now and India-TV VMR, 110-120 in NewsX, 108 in Republic TV, and 135 (with a margin of 11) in Today’s Chanakya and 142 in VDP Associates. These exit polls have brought cheers to the BJP and one of its leader Chhattisgarh Minister Brijmohan Agrawal went to the extent of saying that “Gujarat mein absolute majority se BJP aayegi, aur abhi pappu ko upgrade hone mein bohot samay lagega”.

The limitations of exit polls to predict how many seats one party would win are well known. Given the multi-party contests for each seat, diversified electorate divided across religion, castes, and socio-economic classes, developmental disparities among regions and constituencies, exit polls’ prediction for 43.53 million electorates of Gujarat can never be perfect. Unless an exit poll that has been conducted with a large size of sample having reasonable representation for different social and economic groups from different regions covering constituency-level polling center and through a strictly random selection of respondents, its results can never depict the true aggregate voting behavior in the state of Gujarat. No wonder that exit polls in the past have failed to correctly predict the electoral outcomes, for instance, in 2007 when Mayawati led the Bahujan Samaj Party to a decisive and historic victory in Uttar Pradesh.

Rather than relying on the results from imperfectly conducted exit polls, the Critical Mirror Team undertakes an analytical study of voting patterns in the Gujarat assembly election 2017 and attempts to make prediction for electoral outcomes for different parties. Apparently, Gujarat election 2017 is characterized by following facts:

(1) Anti-incumbency and social and economic discontentment: BJP has been in power in Gujarat since 1995. Being a ruling party for 22 years, BJP is evidently facing incumbency disadvantages (i.e. anti-incumbency) in this election. After Narendra Modi’s migration to national politics, Gujarat has seen Patidar reservation stir, increasing cases of Dalit atrocities and Dalit agitation, rise of OBCs’ discontentment, continuing distress in rural sector, deteriorating transport and health infrastructure, rising unemployment and so on. Demonetization in 2016 and implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 2017 has severely dented the growth and operation of businesses in Gujarat, particularly SMEs, leading to over 30% cuts in employment. Textile sector in Surat has been negatively affected by GST leading to massive protests by textile traders and businesses. Similarly, there was high anger among people residing in flood-hit North Gujarat districts of Banaskantha and Patan owing to lack of timely government relief and inadequate compensation for loss and assistance for rebuilding houses. In the aftermath of death of 14 Patidar youths, some of them in police firing, during the agitation and thereafter continuing protest under the leadership of Hardik Patel, sections of Patidar community were angry with the ruling BJP. Clearly, these factors represent disadvantages faced by BJP in seeking power in 2017.  

(2) Start Campaigners: Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi were the star campaigner for BJP and Congress respectively in Gujarat election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the BJP campaign addressing 34 public rallies and meetings covering different regions of the state from Kachchh to North Gujarat while Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addressed 30 public rallies across the state. In addition, both these star campaigners had interactions with various groups and visited several temples, specifically Rahul Gandhi visited 12 temples during his poll campaign. Narendra Modi possessed an emotional connect with Gujarati people being the son of the soil and two times Chief Minister of state in the past and the fact that Gujarat played an important role in making him the Prime Minister of India. Personal popularity of Narendra Modi is unmatched among Gujarati people and the same is distinctly different from the image of his party BJP in the state. Rahul Gandhi has connection to Gujarat but he certainly does not possess deeply embedded psychological connection with Gujarati people as enjoyed by Mr. Modi. Nevertheless, Mr. Gandhi presented himself differently this time with sharper speeches, one-liners and his simplicity has drawn impromptu crowds. He has been successful in putting together a formidable challenge to ruling BJP in the election.

(3) Electoral Strategies: The BJP team have virtually borrowed their strategies framed and successfully implemented in Uttar Pradesh election to unsettle Yadav family from power in the early 2017. Strategies followed included: (i) letting Narendra Modi lead from the front, (ii) focusing on adding new leaders and voters from other backward classes (non-Yadav-OBCs) and Dalit communities to BJP’s traditional upper caste leader cum voter base, (iii) reviving and intensifying organizational base from the lowest rung and establishing the importance of booth management. To counter the negative impact of Patidar quota movement and Hardik Patel siding with Congress, BJP adopted two prong strategies. First, it successfully inducted other prominent leaders of the Patidar community associated with the said movements like Ketan Patel, Amrish Patel, Varun Patel, Reshma Patel and Chirag Patel. Secondly, it tried to compensate any loss in Patel voters by adding more OBC voters. It fielded a total of 57 OBC among its 182 candidates in 2017 as compared to 47 OBC candidates in 2012. Among OBCs, 17 tickets were given to Kolis in 2017 as compared to 10 tickets given to them in 2012. The projection of Narendra Modi as the star campaigner by BJP made him the natural target of Rahul Gandhi and other congress leaders in the former’s home state. On December 7, Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar called Narendra Modi a “neech aadmi (vile man)” who has no sabhyata [civility]. In the same day, another youth Congress leader Salman Nizami raised questions regarding Mr. Modi’s parents in a twit over the internet. Rahul Gandhi himself fallen into the design of BJP as personal and bitter attacks on Mr. Modi, given the latter’s emotional bonding with Gujarati voters, will be counterproductive. BJP enjoys a strong cadre base and strong organization networks in Gujarat.

The strategies adopted by Congress were: (i) letting Rahul Gandhi lead from the front, (ii) wooing Patidars, OBCs and Dalits by enlisting support of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani respectively and (iii) forge alliance with tribal party based in South Gujarat. Given the weak organization strength and lack of recognizable local face for leadership in Gujarat, Congress was hoping that anti-incumbency and general public discontentment with economic situations after demonetization and GST will work in its favour. Congress has fielded 65 OBCs in 2017 as compared to 57 OBCs in 2012. However, the major increase in OBC candidates got effected for non-Thakor and non-Kolis OBCs like Prajapatis, Panchals, and Kshatriya OBCs. Congress fielded a total of 47 Patidar candidates in 2017 as compared to 52 Patidar candidates fielded by BJP. There are 6 Muslim candidates in Congress list while none fielded by BJP. Visits and rallies by Rahul Gandhi has indeed rejuvenated Congress campaign but as soon as Rahul Gandhi leave Gujarat on each occasion, there was no one in the opposition party who could keep together and lead the local leaders. The absence of a recognizable and popular face meant for providing credible leadership in the event of wining the assembly election was a distinct limitation on the Congress side. Congress’ alliance with Bharatiya Tribal Party of Chhotubhai Vasava is an advantage for organizationally weak Congress. Chhotubhai’s Bhilistan Tiger Sena has good cadre base and networks in South Gujarat, which will surely be helpful to Congress electoral performance in tribal areas.

Analysis based on Voting Turnout

Several key findings can be noted from voting turnout in different phases of polling:

(a) Overall Voter Turnout: Generally, 70% is a reasonable rate for election turnouts, which was exceeded by Gujarat electorate in 2012 assembly election. The electoral participation in Gujarat assembly election 2017 stood at 73%. Even when this figure does not greatly deviate from 70% mark, it does suggest that state electorates were less enthusiastic with voting this time. The general disillusionment of people of Gujarat with incumbent BJP government in the state should have resulted in an increased voter turnout, which could not be due to lack of credible local alternative in the state. In the absence of a locally recognized and acceptable face to lead the Congress led alternative, good efforts of Rahul Gandhi were not enough. Gujarat electorate were unhappy with BJP given its 22 years of anti-incumbency and adverse economic situations for small businesses but it appears that voters are simply hesitant to put their hope on the alternative offered by Congress.

(b) Party Composition of Caste Wise Voting: As the distribution of tickets to candidates by both BJP and Congress was done keeping in mind targeted social groups, it makes sense to analyze voting preference of different communities across political parties. In one of the exit polls survey conducted by VDP Associates, such information is available, which is presented in Table-1. Keeping in mind limitation of an exit poll, we can cautiously interpret this Table.

Table-1: Caste-wise Voting Percentage of Parties  in VDP Associates Exit Poll

Social Groups Voting Percentage (%)
BJP Congress Others Total
Dalits 43 45 12 100
Muslims 7 88 5 100
Upper Castes 62 29 9 100
Patels 41 50 9 100
Kolis 66 26 8 100
Other OBC 58 32 10 100
Adivasis (ST) 53 32 15 100
Christians 34 38 28 100

Source: VDP Associates Exit Poll (2017)

Apparently, BJP’s strategies of giving more focus on OBCs particularly Kolis to compensate for possible loss of Patel votes due to Hardik Patel led reservation movement appear to be quite successful. Nearly, 66% of Koli votes went to BJP as compared to 26% to Congress. Koli community accounts for an estimated 30% of Gujarat population. Even non-Kolis OBCs have preferred BJP over Congress. Gains in OBC (including Kolis) votes by BJP more than compensated loss in Patel votes. Importantly, BJP’s attempt to get other Patel leaders associated with Patidar reservation movement ensured that not all Patel votes are lost. Most importantly, Dalit agitation and Jignesh Mevani’s support to Congress has not significantly shifted Dalit votes from BJP. Given that BJP has been able to add more OBCs votes to its upper castes support base while equally sharing Dalit votes indicate that it is able to meet the electoral challenge mooted by Congress. It is surprising that nearly 53% of Dalit votes have preferred BJP over Congress despite rising cases of Dalit atrocities including Unna incident. The opposition party has received advantage of shift in Patel votes toward it while continued to enjoy majority support from Muslims electorate. Nevertheless, Congress has not been successful in capturing crucial OBC votes. Keeping in mind this voting preference, let’s move ahead in analyzing the phase-wise electoral performance of parties in Gujarat assembly election 2017.

(c) Phase-wise voting: In the first phase, 89 assembly constituencies located in Kachchh, Saurashtra and South Gujarat regions went for polling. There is a total of 21 reserved assembly constituencies comprising of 7 for SCs and 14 for STs. In Saurashtra, BJP faced a difficult task in 16 assembly constituencies based in Rajkot, Morbi and Amreli districts where Patels accounted for a significant share of electorate. As Patel votes are divided and Congress is relatively more preferred by economically not so well off Patels, we can predict that Congress have a good chance to increase its electoral tally in Saurashtra region, which was just 11 seats in 2012. In addition to favorable Patel voting, agrarian distress in cotton growing areas in Saurashtra may propel Congress to attain more than 25 seats out of 50 seats in Saurashtra region. Given the electoral alliance with Bharatiya Tribal Party, Congress is giving a tough challenge to the incumbent BJP in tribal areas in South Gujarat. Out of 33 assembly constituencies in South Gujarat, 12 are reserved for STs. Depleting forest resources, promotion of mining and adverse agrarian change have deprived tribals of Gujarat from their natural livelihood and increased their poverty and malnourishment. These tribal areas are devoid of basic infrastructure, health and educational facilities and suffers from lack of jobs. Despite BJP’s recent inroads, Congress led alliance is likely to enjoy electoral edge provided by tribals in South Gujarat who are facing displacement and deforestation due to developmental projects. Out of 16 seats in Surat alone, Congress is expected to win more than 5 seats while it had just 1 seat in 2012. In the rest of South Gujarat having 17 seats, more than 8 seats may go to Congress led alliance. Out of 6 SC seats in Saurashtra and South Gujarat, 3 may be captured by Congress. Overall, in the first phase of voting Congress appears to be possessing distinct advantages over BJP.

Table-2: Statistics Related to Gujarat Assembly Election 2017       

Indicator First Phase Polling Second Phase Polling
Date of Polling 09.12.2017 14.12.2017
No. Candidates 977 [920-Male & 57-Female (5.8%)] 851 [782-Male & 69-Female (8.1%)]
No. Candidates by Party 89-BJP, 87-Congress, 64-BSP, 48-AIHCP, 30-NCP, 25-Shivsena, 21-AAP 93-BJP, 91-Congress, 75-BSP, 46-AIHCP, 28-NCP, 17-Shivsena, 8-AAP
No. of Assembly Constituencies 89 [6 in Kachchh, 50 in Saurashtra & 33 in South Gujarat] 93 [32 in North Gujarat & 61 in Central Gujarat]
No. of SC Constituencies 7 [1 in Kachchh, 5 in Saurashtra & 1 in South Gujarat] 6 [3 in North Gujarat & 3 in Central Gujarat]
No. of ST Constituencies 14 [0 in Kachchh, 2 in Saurashtra & 12 in South Gujarat] 13 [3 in North Gujarat & 10 in Central Gujarat]
Size of Electorate (No. in Lakh) 212.3 [111.1-Male & 101.3 Female (48%)] 223 [115.5-Male & 107.5 Female (48%)]
Voter Turnout (%) 66.75% 68.7%
Memorandum Item: 2012 Assembly Election
Voter Turnout (%) 70.75% 71.85

During the second phase, a total of 93 assembly constituencies including reserved 6 SC and 13 ST seats went for polling in North and Central Gujarat regions. In 2012, Congress had won 17 in North Gujarat and 22 seats in Central Gujarat as compared to BJP’s 15 and 38 seats respectively. North Gujarat region has been the traditional support base for Congress and in the recent past it has seen a prolong farming crisis, setbacks to small businesses due to inadequate policy supports, demonetization and GST and loss due to heavy floods in this year. In addition, the region has been the starting point for Patel reservation agitation. Nearly 16 constituencies in Patan, Mahesana and Gandhinagar districts where Patels play a significant role in electoral outcomes. Given the support of Hardik Patel to Congress, the latter can be expected to maintain a lead over rival BJP. Congress is likely to exceed its existing tally of 22 seats in North Gujarat.

However, in Central Gujarat BJP is evidently facing tough challenge from Congress. Assembly constituencies located in Central Gujarat have benefitted the most from policies pursued by incumbent state government and job creations due to rapid urbanization and location of domestic and foreign investments. Therefore, Congress challenge hinges on its appeal to Patidars based in the region. Ahmedabad has been the center for massive Patel congression in 2015 leading to police firing resulting in several deaths of Patidar youths in the city and elsewhere in the state. Hardik Patel’s road show in Ahmedabad on 11 December 2017 from Bopal to Nikol has drawn a good response, which was expected to lend strength to Congress campaign. In such a situation, out of 12 seats in the city of Ahmedabad, Congress is expected win between 5-7 seats covering Nikol, Vejalpur, Dariapur, Danilimda, and Bapunagar.  In the rest of the seats in Central Gujarat, however, BJP may maintain lead over Congress.

In both the phases, the presence of candidates fielded by BSP, NCP and AAP likely to cuts into support base of Congress. The extent these parties combinedly draw vote share may damage Congress prospects in several seats, thereby, boosting chances of BJP to win in those seats.

Who will form the new government?

Given these diverse trends and factors playing their role in determining electoral success for the ruling BJP and opposition Congress, the Critical Mirror team tends to predict that both these parties have equal probability of reaching the majority mark of 92 seats. Eventually whoever form the new government in Gujarat, the same will be with a simple majority. The fact that Congress under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi gave BJP a neck and neck competition in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to enhance the political stature of Rahul Gandhi.

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