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Voting Turnout in the First Phase of Gujarat Election 2017: What It holds for Political Parties

Usually, a very high voter turnout is taken to be an indicator for change of political regime. However, in the first phase of polling, Gujarat saw 68 per cent voter turnout, which is about 4 percentage point lower than overall voting turnaround for the state assembly in 2012 general election. This relatively lower voting percentage in the first phase, in traditional way, could be interpreted as an advantage for BJP in the state election.

However, a situational analysis may indicate that the lower voting turnout is in fact an indication that Congress has done well in the first phase. Geographically, all assembly constituencies that went for polling today are in Kutch, Saurashtra (Amreli, Bhavnagar, Botad, Dwarka, Gir Somnath, Jamnagar, Junagadh, Morbi, Porbandar, Rajkot, and Surendranagar) and South Gujarat (Surat, Bharuch, Navsari, Dang, Valsad, Narmada and Tapi) regions. Factors that may translate into Congress advantage are listed below:

  • Patel Factor: Patels are a sizeable community in Saurashtra while Muslim-Patel combination is significant in Kutch. Given the patidar anamat agitation in 2015 and continuous protests by patels for OBC reservation led by PAAS leader Hardik Patel, patels are no more traditional support base for the ruling BJP. Even in the local elections held in 2015, the BJP could win only one district panchayat out of 11 in Saurashtra as there were huge patels’ dissatisfaction with BJP vis-à-vis their demand for OBC reservation. Despite aggressive campaigns by PM Narendra Modi, young patels under the influence of Hardik Patel are likely to choose Congress while older patels may stay with BJP. But the fact remain that patels who used to overwhelmingly vote for BJP in state assembly are unlikely to do so now. Dissatisfied patel youths are likely to vote against BJP while older patels owning small businesses may not be enthused with voting given their bad experience with the negative impacts from demonetization and haphazard implementation of GST. Clearly, in Saurashtra region BJP is looking at defeat than victory. In Kutch, the Muslim-Patel combination will only work against the prospect of BJP candidates.
  • Tribal Factor: Tribals have prominent presence in South Gujarat districts. Chhotubhai Vasava’s Bhilisthan Tiger Sena (BTS) and its political version Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) has been working in the tribal areas for last two decades or so. The BTP and Congress are fighting in alliance, which will clearly be an advantage for Congress. To what extent, the tribal population of the state have suffered from demonetization and GST and given their political consciousness on tribal rights, tribal factor may play its role. Given the popularity of Chhotubhai Vasava and works undertaken by BTS in the past, tribal votes may go against BJP. Young tribals are more conscious of their developmental plights than older generation and may vote against the ruling party. The older generation may continue to vote for Chhotubhai Vasava.
  • OBC Factor: For the first time in the political history of Gujarat, OBC discourse is prominently figuring in the state election. Even this took the shape of formation of new OBC parties at the state level. The Koli community, who are estimated to constitute more than 30 per cent of Gujarat population, has started their own initiative like Vyavastha Parivartahn Party based in Bhavnagar. This new entrant is giving fierce opposition to BJP as Koli community was largely with BJP in the past. Congress has been successful in inducting OBC leader Alpesh Thakor. Clearly, these factors will help Congress over BJP in the first phase of election.
  • Dalit Factor: The Unna incident, rising cases of atrocities against dalit and emergence of Jignesh Mevani are likely to facilitate Congress than the ruling BJP. Dalits are largely expected to shift back to Congress from BJP given these issues.
  • Rural Distress: Agricultural sector in Gujarat has been under pressure given the rising prices of farm equipments including tractors and fertilizers, reduction in minimum support prices for agricultural produce, and inadequate irrigation facilities. The situation is quite grime for cotton farmers who are struggling to meet rising input prices while MSP for cotton is declining.
  • Anti-incumbency and “Gando Vikash”: Gujarat election 2017 is progressing when there is strong sense of anti-incumbency against the BJP government at the State and Centre. Youths are highly dissatisfied with rising unemployment in the state and are seeing this election as a means for expressing their discontentment over governance in the state.

In view of the above factors, low voter turnout in 2017 as compared to 2012 assembly election are unlikely to provide any advantage to the ruling BJP. Low polling percentage in fact may benefit the opposition Congress.

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