The Congress in Gujarat is banking on its star campaigner Rahul Gandhi and support from a clutch of caste leaders to bridge the around 9 per cent vote share gap that led the BJP to retain power in 2012. However, the saffron party, which is in power in Gujarat for over two decades, is not only confident of retaining its 2012 base, but also expanding the vote share. Gujarat will vote in two phases — on December 9 and 14 — to elect a new 182-member Assembly. The counting of votes will take place on December 18. The Congress is hoping attendance at Gandhi’s rallies will translate into votes and it will get an extra push from new-found local allies — Patidar quota spearhead Hardik Patel, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani. While Thakor has joined the Congress, Hardik Patel, who heads the Patidar Anamat Aandolan Samiti, has pledged his support to the main opposition party. Mevani, who has positioned himself as the face of Dalit agitation in Gujarat, is contesting from Vadgam in North Gujarat as an independent. The Congress is supporting him by not fielding a candidate of its own. On the other hand, the BJP is focussing on holding together its votes from the trading community and tribals.
According to the Election Commission of India’s data on the 2012 Gujarat polls, the BJP had received 47.85 per cent of the valid votes, while the Congress garnered 38.93 per cent votes, a difference of 8.92 per cent between the two parties. Though there was a difference of 9 per cent votes, the BJP won 115 seats and the Congress 61. The NCP and Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party bagged two seats each. The Janata Dal (U) won one seat and an independent, too, emerged victorious.
In 2012, Gujarat had over 3.8 crore voters, spread over 26 districts. The turnout was 72.02 per cent, the highest-ever in Gujarat’s history, according to an EC report released after the 2012 polls. As per the latest electoral roll, Gujarat has over 4.35 crore voters.
According to Kuwarjibhai Bavaliya, working president of the Gujarat Congress Pradesh Committee, this time the party is posing a stiff challenge to the BJP. “Our own campaign, Hardik Patel’s appeal among the Patidar community and Alpesh and Jignesh’s acceptance within the OBCs and Dalits will make a significant dent (in the BJP vote share),” Bavaliya told PTI. “The Congress was on its own in 2012 and there was no Hardik, Alpesh or Jignesh. If the Congress alone could secure 38.93 per cent, then with these three new factors, we will certainly gain further,” the Congress leader claimed. But, the BJP is not willing to buy this logic.
Harshad Patel, the Gujarat BJP spokesperson, said, “After 2012, there was 2014 general elections where the BJP made huge gains in most of the Assembly constituencies. “The Congress led in just 17 Assembly constituencies in 2014 elections. Given this kind of support just three years ago, the BJP’s performance in this election would be much better than 2012,” Harshad Patel said. “It is true that the BJP is just 9 per cent ahead of the Congress in vote share, but look at the number of MLAs we have. “And going by the mandate in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls (the BJP had won all the 26 LS seats in Gujarat), we are likely to get a similar response from voters this time too. With this, we will win more seats than in 2012,” he claimed. BJP president Amit Shah has set a target of winning 150-plus seats in his home state.
However, Harshad Patel’s claims do not find support among the political pundits. Jayesh Thakrar, a veteran journalist from Rajkot, said, “The Congress contested 176 seats (in 2012), whereas the BJP fielded candidates on all the seats (182). Despite this, the Congress is just 9 per cent behind the BJP in vote share. This is a plus point for the Congress.”
In 2012, there were 28 assembly seats where the winning margin was less than 4,000 votes. This means, both the parties had almost an equal chance to win all these seats. Out of these seats, the Congress bagged 17, the BJP seven and other parties won the rest. Thakrar said, “Though the Congress had faced stiff competition in 2012, this time Patidar, OBC and Dalit leaders are campaigning for the Congress candidates as well. It means, the BJP candidates in these seats will have to make extra efforts to swing votes in their favour.” Thakrar is editor of ‘Sandesh’, a prominent newspaper in Saurashtra, founded in 1923.