In Gujarat, an urban-rural divide, as nationalism is pitted against development

Written by Mansi Mehta | Published on: April 23, 2019
Gujarat is set to go to the polls on Tuesday, April 23, in its first and only phase for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In the previous general elections, in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept Gujarat, winning all of its 26 parliamentary constituencies, and securing the absolute majority in the lower house of Parliament with 282 of 543 seats. Ten years before that, as NDA I’s India Shining Campaign was over-estimated, the Congress won 12 out of the 26 seats in the state. This was also the first election after the Gujarat genocidal carnage. The historic Best Bakery verdict had been delivered on April 12, 2004 before India went to the polls that year.

Gujarat Elections
Image Courtesy: PTI

However, this time around, some have raised doubts about whether the BJP will be able to repeat its 2014 performance. Gujarat is home to two of BJP’s top campaigners and major leaders–Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. Both have campaigned extensively in Gujarat. Shah, who is running for a seat in the Gandhinagar constituency, held roadshows in Ghatlodia, Kalol, Naranpura, Sabarmati, Sanand, Sarkhej, and Vejalpur, as well as four group meetings with residential societies, per the Ahmedabad Mirror, which noted that Modi spoke at rallies in Amreli, Anand, Himmatnagar, Junagadh, Patan, Songadh, and Surendranagar. A top BJP leader told the Ahmedabad Mirror, "We won all the 26 seats in 2014 LS polls. Then in 2017 Assembly polls we got only 99 seats, the lowest ever in more than two decades. Hence, two of our best faces – Modi and Shah – camped in Gujarat longer this time for maximum impact." Indeed, an editorial in The Hindu in December 2017 noted of the Gujarat assembly election results, "Whatever the BJP leaders may say, the victory — by an extremely slim majority and well short of the 150-plus seats it aimed to win — is a setback." 
 
Gandhinagar has been the constituency of BJP veteran LK Advani, and although Shah has been campaigning across the country, per ThePrint and NDTV, a backroom team has been conducting his campaign in Gujarat’s capital, even going so far as using life-sized cutouts of the BJP president. While some believe that the constituency will be an easy win for Shah, his opponent, the Congress’s CJ Chavda, who is a veterinarian and ex-bureaucrat, told ThePrint that the "battle isn’t tough at all. I do not think there is any challenge to winning." 
 
Congress president Rahul Gandhi spoke at five public meetings across Gujarat, and one of the party’s most popular campaigners, Navjot Singh Sidhu, also campaigned there on the last day before campaigning had to be stopped, The Week reported, noting that although the BJP had said it would win all the Gujarat seats, "on Saturday, Congress leader Ahmed Patel exuded confidence that his party would win 10 to 15 seats." The Week highlighted that BJP has relied on the central government’s accomplishments, the Balakot air strike, and "Modi’s emotional appeal," while the Congress "has tried to exploit the anger among the farmers and small businessmen." 
 
Per FirstPost, which cited the Pocketbook of Agricultural Statistics of 2017 that is published by the Union agriculture ministry, almost 43% of the 39.31 lakh agricultural households in Gujarat are in debt. Moreover, Adivasis, which comprise 8.6% of the state’s population have grown increasingly angry with the BJP government, Outlook India reported in March. Dr. Praful Vasava, a local tribal leader, told Outlook, "As per the law, the gram sabhas have to agree to give away land, but they were not asked either before the Narmada weir or the statue were built. In 72 villages, 75,000 tribals were affected: they neither received compensation nor land elsewhere. The promised jobs have also not come. It’s a fight for our jal-jameen-jangal (water, land and forests). The government probably feels we don’t matter. But our protest is going to impact the results."
 
LiveMint has highlighted the divide between urban and rural Gujarat, noting that more than half of the 99 seats the BJP secured in the 2017 assembly election were in cities, and emphasising that the major causes for the BJP’s lacklustre performance that year, including unemployment, farm distress, and the negative impact of the GST and demonetisation, still persist. In fact, the Business Standard highlighted how both parties’ campaign events have been in rural areas, and away from Gujarat’s major urban centres. Gandhi’s public speeches were delivered in the primarily agricultural areas of Kutch-Saurashtra, in Bhavnagar and Rajula, as well as Navsari and Bhuj. 
 
Multiple rural farmers criticised the BJP government when speaking to LiveMint’s Darshan Desai, who is based in Ahmedabad. In the Jesar village in the Amreli constituency, Mansukhbhai, a farmer, said, “Please understand clearly. We want a government for the poor, for us farmers, not for a handful of people. I don’t want to hear about all this desh-bhakti (nationalism). We want an MP (member of Parliament) whom we will get to see and who will sort out our issues." When asked about the Rs. 6,000 aid proposed for all farmers, Hardasbhai of the Kadegi village said, “They seem to be merely mocking our situation," adding, “We will get a paltry amount of ₹2,000 first. It would have been better if this was not given. We have not received adequate support prices for our groundnut and cotton crops. The government should have looked into that". 
 
Meanwhile, the drumbeats of nationalism seem to have reverberated in Gujarat’s urban areas. LiveMint pointed out that slogans at Amit Shah’s roadshows had little connection to his constituency, Gandhinagar, or even Gujarat; a commonly used one was 'Kashmir hamara hai (Kashmir is ours)'. "Across urban Gujarat, large hoardings of Narendra Modi’s face with the accompanying slogan 'Attacked terrorists inside enemy’s homes' dot the landscape," LiveMint reported, adding, "Several cities have witnessed special screenings of Uri: The Surgical Strike". Arjun Modhwadia, a senior Congress leader in the state, told LiveMint, “In the state’s rural regions, people are not interested in the nationalist rhetoric…We don’t see anything less than ten seats… all drawn from rural and Adivasi dominated regions". 
 
While agricultural distress, and an underwhelming performance by the state administration came in power after Modi has upped Congress’s advantage, it too has suffered some setbacks. In 2017, as the Times of India noted, the party made gains in North Gujarat–which has a significant population of Dalits, members of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and the Patidar community–because of Alpesh Thakore, Hardik Patel, and Jignesh Mevani, two of whom were elected to assembly seats. However, Thakore quit the Congress just earlier this month, and Mevani, a Dalit leader, has aspirations for national role, the Times of India noted. Meanwhile, the Gujarat High Court denied Patel's plea for a stay on his conviction in a 2015 rioting case. However, Patel, who officially joined the Congress in March 2019, is still a major campaigner for the party; per The Week, he addressed more than 50 rallies in the state. 
 
Per The Telegraph, the Lok Sabha election has generated little interest in Gujarat. A paan seller, Panditji, in Navrangpura in the Ahmedabad West constituency said, "Maahaul bilkul thanda hai (the election is absolutely dull)". Moreover, The Telegraph noted that "crowds had to be 'managed'" for Modi’s rallies in the states. "No one ran out of their shops and homes when his chopper landed. People had to be brought to the rally," went an oft-repeated phrase following the Prime Minister’s rally in Surendranagar, Saurashtra, which has been dealing with drought. 
 
Analysis from the Economic Times indicates that the race is a narrow one in Gujarat, with the BJP keeping hold of major urban constituencies, but the Congress also appearing as a strong contender in Sabarkantha, Patan, and Banaskantha in northern Gujarat, and its candidate Bharatsinh Solanki "in a strong position in Anand". The Economic Times noted that, in 2015 and 2016, Mahesana was the epicentre of protests seeking quotas for the Patidars, who "were strong BJP supporters" ahead of the demonstrations, but "may be splitting their votes" this time. The votes of the Thakore community could also be divided in north Gujarat, per the Economic Times, which also noted that while the tribal vote in the state is also typically divided, a majority of voters in the Dangs, Chhota Udaipur, and Panch Mahal areas have complained of water scarcity. 
 
While the BJP has had a strong hold on Gujarat for years, it must be noted that in 2009, the Congress won 12 of the 26 parliamentary constituencies, repeating its performance from 2004, the year that the NDA government’s major 'India Shining' campaign failed to draw votes, and resulted in the formation of the UPA government. With the current race seeming to be a delicate balance, it remains to be seen whether Modi’s party will retain power in his home state. It seems, however, that Prime Minister has high expectations of Gujarat voters. Speaking in Patan on Sunday, April 21, he reportedly said, "The duty of the people of my home state to take care of the 'son of soil' and give all 26 seats in Gujarat to me," per NDTV
 
Kachchh has been a BJP stronghold since 1996, according to FirstPost, which said that although the Kachchh district has a majority of Hindus, it is also home to almost 4.42 lakh Muslims, and nearly 2.59 lakh people who belong to Scheduled Castes. 
 
Banaskantha is noted for its mineral reserves, including granite, limestone, and marble, per FirstPost. The constituency also regularly gets funds from the Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme.
 
Mahesana has a majority Hindu population, 92.6%, with 6.7% Muslims, FirstPost noted, adding that the Patidar community has a strong presence, and there are 3.5 lakh people from the Thakur community. "OBCs and Dalits also have a sizeable presence but it is the Patidars who play a crucial role in deciding who wins from the constituency," FirstPost said. 
 
Gandhinagar is a key constituency, with BJP president Amit Shah contesting from it. The majority of its population is Hindu–94.81%. 
 
Surendranagar in Saurashtra has a majority of Hindus, but also has a significant Koli population, FIrstPost noted, adding that it supplies almost 25% of the country’s salt, and is also a textile centre. 
 
In Rajkot, three communities have been key in influencing political outcomes, according to FirstPost; these include the Koli community and two sub-castes in the Patel community: the Kadva and Leuva groups. 
 
Anand encompasses the entire Anand district, which is home to nearly 21 lakh people, per FirstPost. The majority of the population, 85.95%, is Hindu. It is known for being home to Amul, and the centre of the milk revolution. In fact, dairy farming has become a major election issue, per ThePrint, with farmers complaining of drought, low prices, and no support from the government.
 
In 2014, current Prime Minister Narendra Modi contested from the Vadodara constituency, and won with a sizeable margin. The constituency covers parts of the Vadodara district, which is home to more than 41 lakh people, primarily Hindus. However, per the 2011 census, there are more than 3.85 lakh Muslims in the area, FirstPost reported.
 
The Chhota Udaipur constituency includes parts of the Narmada, Panchmahal and Vadodra district, and the latter has a large population people belonging to Scheduled Tribes–11.49 lakh people, per FirstPost.
 
The Surat constituency includes parts of the Surat district and is home to around 60.81 lakh people, per the 2011 census. It is a hub for diamond manufacturing, and has been the constituency of former Prime Minister Morarji Desai of the Janata Party.