Gujarat elections: BJP seems to have an edge in a close contest


New Delhi: The Gujarat elections 2017 appears to be a much closer contest than before, with the party putting up a stronger fight against the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The results of two rounds of pre-poll surveys conducted by the Lokniti research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) as well as ground-reports from Gujarat indicate discontent among a sizeable section of voters.

While this discontent may lead to a stiffer challenge for the BJP, it may not be enough to bring an end to BJP’s long rule in Gujarat, an analysis of the past election trends and the pre-poll survey findings suggest.

In Gujarat elections since 1995, the BJP has consistently maintained a vote share lead between 9 to 11 percentage points over the Congress, as the chart below shows.

In the 2012 Gujarat elections, the BJP’s lead fell below 10% for the first time since 1995 but even then, the BJP won handsomely, largely because of its impressive performance in urban constituencies. It won 35 of the 39 seats in big cities with 59.5% votes in these parts, and 36 of the 45 assembly seats in medium and small towns with 49% votes in these seats. It is only in the 98 rural seats that Congress could offer some resistance. The grand old party won 49 of these assembly seats and polled 42.1% votes in these rural constituencies, while BJP ended up winning 44 seats with 42.9% votes.

A small swing in votes is unlikely to lead to big upsets, especially in urban constituencies of Gujarat where the BJP has a much stronger support base. And in an urbanized state such as Gujarat, it is these constituencies that may make or break political fortunes of parties.

The BJP also seems to hold an advantage over the Congress because of its large victory margins in previous elections. During the 2012 Gujarat elections, the BJP managed to win by more than 40,000 votes in 25 constituencies while the Congress managed to win only two constituencies by such wide margins. In 21 of the 61 seats that the Congress won, its margin of victory was less than 5,000 votes.

The difference between the median victory margins of the Congress and the BJP has steadily widened since 1998, as the chart below shows. In the 2012 Gujarat elections, the median victory margin of the BJP in seats it won was twice that of the Congress in seats the Congress won.

Thus, unless a big shift in votes from BJP to Congress occurs this time, the BJP may still end up winning many of the high-victory-margin seats even though the margins may decline this time.

To be sure, the pre-poll survey findings do indicate significant levels of discontent among voters in the state but this may not be enough to turn the tide. While some sections of voters such as traders may have harboured resentment against the BJP because of disruptions such as demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST), recent moves to simplify norms related to GST may have helped stem the tide of discontent against a party that has always depended on traders for support. The survey results indicated significant discontent among traders but this may have declined over the past few weeks, with new changes to the GST regime kicking in.

Some reports suggest that farmer discontent in Gujarat is high and poses a threat to the BJP. The Lokniti-CSDS poll shows that 45% farmers are of the opinion that their situation has deteriorated during the last five years of the BJP government. But an equal number believes that their situation has improved. This opinion is more or less equally shared among big and small farmers. It is unlikely that farmers will vote as a bloc for any one party. This is true across the country given that farmers are more likely to vote along caste lines rather than on the basis of farming-related issues.

Caste does pose a challenge for the BJP in Gujarat, with resentment against the party among the Patidar community. But the level of resentment is uneven within the community. The Patidar resentment is concentrated largely among those in the poorer and middle income groups. Also, younger Patidars are far more likely to vote against the BJP than middle-aged or older Patidars, the Lokniti-CSDS survey results suggest. The trend is similar among Dalit and OBC voters, with older voters in these communities far more likely to vote for the BJP than the young.

The evidence so far seems to suggest that while the going may be tough for the BJP, the party may still scrape through, and form the next government in Gujarat.