Gujarat Assembly polls: First phase to play kingmaker
The regions of Saurashtra-Kutch and South Gujarat polled their votes on Saturday. These are the regions that are the most crucial for both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the outcome here will decide that who would form the next government in the state.
These are the regions have been the theatres of political unrest in the last two years providing an opportunity to the opposition Congress to come out with an alternative political narrative to the BJP.
These two regions account for 89 of the 182 seats in the state Assembly. While Saurashtra-Kutch region has 54 seats, South Gujarat sends 35 MLAs to the state Assembly. Of these seats, the Congress was able to win only 16 seats in the last Assembly polls in 2012. It is in these regions that the party is looking for making maximum gains. These 89 seats are spread over 19 districts.
Many political heavyweights from both the parties have contested from these two regions. For the BJP, these include Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, state unit president Jitu Vaghani, former president RC Faldu, cabinet ministers Ganpat Vasava, Chiman Sapariya, Babu Bokhiriya, speaker Ramanlal Vora and former minister Saurabh Patel.
The Congress list includes senior leaders Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhwadia, Tushar Chaudhary, Paresh Dhanani, Kunvarji Bavaliya. Even the tribal strongman Chhotu Vasava was a candidate in this phase along with senior PAAS leader Lalit Vasoya.
It one analyses these regions separately, one comes across the diversity in the issues that would play a role in the poll outcome.
South Gujarat's city of Surat has been the epicentre of the anti-BJP protests over the last two years, be it on the issues of demonetisation, implementation of Goods and Services Tax (GST) or the farm issues. It has also been the nerve centre of Patidar politics with youth leader Hardik Patel at the helm.
The region has till now been a BJP bastion but there is a strong resentment among the party ranks on not getting enough representation in the successive governments. The common refrain is that South Gujarat has been sending maximum winning legislators but it is the BJP leaders from Saurashtra and North Gujarat who get to have the creamy posts.
It was South Gujarat that gave a victory on 28 of the 35 seats to the BJP in 2012. Of these 28 seats, 11 are reserved for the tribals, two for Scheduled Castes and three are urban seats with an equal ration of rural and urban voters.
Surat alone accounts for 16 seats of which the BJP had won 15 seats last time. The city saw large-scale job losses and businessmen being hit by both the demonetisation and the GST. The city has a large number of residents who work in the local diamond and textile units but have their votes back in their villages in Saurashtra. It remains to be seen how these issues along with the Patidar politics of Surat impacts the voting pattern in their villages where their families reside.
Among the tribal seats of South Gujarat where there is sugarcane plantation and substantial dairies, it is the issues concerning the sugar and dairy co-operatives that overrule the tribal concerns. Most of these bodies have BJP leaders at the helm.
“In the other tribal seats, the politics is around the competitive narratives of Christian tribals and Hindu tribals where the former dominate in terms of numbers. Thankfully this time there was no talk of conversion and re-conversion in these areas this time,” points out a senior political analyst in Surat.
Saurashtra-Kutch is expected to once again be the kingmaker in the state. The general understanding among the people is that Saurashtra-Kutch is to Gujarat what Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are to the national politics. It has been a saffron stronghold for more than the last two decades with BJP winning nearly 40 of the 54 seats.
The Congress has been unsuccessful till now to dislodge the BJP from this region. But this has not happened even with former BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel having formed the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) on the eve of the last polls.
This region has been politically very volatile in the last two years. It has been the region where Dalits have risen against the ruling BJP on issues like non-submission of probe report on Thangadh killings of 2012, the Una public flogging of Dalits, the Dalit march to Una and several other Dalit movements.
The Saurashtrian Patels have also been annoyed with the ruling BJP. The anger is on non-availability of water for irrigation, issues concerning returns on their groundnut and cotton produce despite good monsoons over the last two years.
Saurashtra-Kutch is the region where caste politics would play out in a big way. Communities like Patidars, Kolis, Other Backward Castes (OBCs), Kshatriyas and fishermen have their sway on specific seats.
The industrial development in this region has remained restricted to some pockets like Rajkot, Morbi, Thangadh and Jamnagar. This has led to the migration of men from other districts to either these places or to other regions of the state, mainly South Gujarat.
Analysts say that while the organised industry has been able to adapt to the changes like demonetisation and GST, the informal SME segment in Morbi, Thangadh and Alang in Bhavnagar have had a tough time leading to a lot of unrest. it tough in last year-and-a-half. This has also given rise to resentment in the region.
With both the Congress and the BJP understanding the dynamics very well, their leaderships mainly focused on this region. Both the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have spent maximum time campaigning here.
The Congress played up the failures of BJP rule and the latter hit at the Congress for fomenting trouble in name of caste and its questionable track-record on development in the past. Rahul even resorted to a temple hopping spree from the region visiting pilgrimage sites at Dwarka, Somnath and Chotila even as his detractors criticized him for resorting to 'soft Hindutva'.
The Congress knows it very well that if it is to come to power in the state, it must register maximum gains in terms of seats in these two regions of Saurashtra-Kutch and South Gujarat. For the BJP, retaining its strong grip here is equally important.