There is a reason that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made time for as many as 50 rallies over two weeks in his home state of Gujarat, where the state assembly election is scheduled to take place in two phases, on December 1 and 5.
Gujarat has been a citadel of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for over two decades now, being in power since 1998 at a stretch. Modi ruled the state as chief minister for 13 years prior to becoming the prime minister in 2014. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, known as Modi’s closest aide, also comes from the same state. It’s a prestige fight, for sure, but it’s also more than that.
Though the BJP’s tally in the 182-seat Assembly has seen a downward trend since peaking in 2002 with 126 seats – 117 in 2007, 115 in 2012, and 99 in 2017 – each time it formed government comfortably. Its 2017 tally was only a little above the majority mark of 92 but it has since done well to recover, as was evident from the party’s clean sweep of all 26 Lok Sabha seats in the state in the 2019 parliamentary election, which also saw the re-election of Modi as prime minister.
The BJP should have been at ease over Gujarat. Its main rival, the Congress, has been rendered toothless by sustained poaching. Between 2017 and May 2022, 13 of its 77 members in the state legislative assembly had resigned and 12 of them got re-elected on BJP tickets in ensuing by-elections – taking the Congress’ strength down to 64 and the BJP’s to 111. Six more Congress MLAs have changed ships in the run-up to the election.
What is more, of the three Young Turks who gave the anti-BJP campaign its impetus ahead of the 2017 assembly election – the Patidar community leader Hardik Patel, Other Backwards Class leader Alpesh Thakore, and Scheduled Caste leader Jignesh Mevani – the first two have left the Congress’ “hand” for the BJP’s lotus.
Yet, this weakening of the Congress has not given the BJP any room for complacency, as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s entry to the Gujarat election has given the state’s BJP-Congress bipolar status quo a jolt.
AAP did contest the 2017 Gujarat assembly election, its first, and met with a disastrous result – losing their candidates’ deposits (getting less than 16.6 percent of polled votes) in all 29 seats the party contested from. But no one is taking them casually after the party’s stunning performance in the Punjab assembly election in March, where it unseated the Congress-led state government and put in a stunning performance in the Punjab assembly election in March, where it unseated the Congress-led state government and gained a sweeping majority, no one is taking them casually.
The AAP was born in 2012 out of an anti-corruption movement against the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government of India. It also adopted an anti-BJP pitch after the Modi-led BJP formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2014. Since then, it has tried to remain equidistant from both Congress and the BJP, trying to build its own space, pitching Kejriwal as the best alternative to Modi.
Having its base in Delhi, a state that it won in 2015 and 2020, AAP has consistently looked to expand its footprint, especially in the country’s northern and western regions, including states like Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Rajasthan. However, it is in Gujarat, after Punjab, where the party has given the greatest thrust. Between April and August 2022, Kejriwal visited the state 10 times and the frequency of his visits increased since then. Some successes in local civic body elections made them smell blood.
While its competition with the Congress for becoming BJP’s principal challenger has hurt India’s ‘grand old party’ the most so far, the BJP has not remained unhurt, especially in Delhi and Punjab. Unwilling to take any risk over Gujarat – they have dropped 44 sitting members of the assembly from their list of candidates, partly to bring new faces to the fore to deal with anti-incumbency, partly to accommodate turncoats from the Congress.
For the campaign, they have chief ministers of all BJP-run states and a battery of Union ministers to add to Modi-Shah’s strength.
The BJP’s strategy towards the AAP in Gujarat has been quite interesting – it is avoiding making any reference to Kejriwal’s party, instead lambasting the Congress, and pitching the election as a contest between the BJP and the Congress. Denying AAP any importance seems to be their strategy.
Ruling parties tend to benefit when the opposition camp is divided, as the opposition votes get split. The same is expected in Gujarat. Congress dismissing AAP’s presence, therefore, is understandable. However, the competition between the Congress and the AAP has not offered the BJP any breathing space. Commentators have opined that the AAP’s similarities with the BJP about Hindu majoritarianism have kept the BJP on the edge. Therefore, even though the AAP is expected to eat into the Congress’ traditional votes more than that of the BJP’s, India’s ruling party cannot be sure.
For both the BJP and the Congress, AAP’s Gujarat performance also holds significance beyond the immediate assembly election results – it can act as a shot in the arm for Kejriwal’s party in the state assembly elections of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh due in 2023, and finally impact the political equation in northern and western India ahead of the 2024 parliamentary election.
Elections in these states have remained bipolar, between the BJP and the Congress, for so long. The AAP is believed to have profited from the infighting in the Congress in Punjab and hopes to make similar dividends in Rajasthan, taking advantage of the Congress’ infighting, while its gains in Rajasthan can also spoil the BJP’s chances of returning to power in the desert-state.
Together, the northern, western, and central Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Delhi have 130 of India’s 543 Lok Sabha seats.
On the one hand, the party says the Congress is incapable of taking on the BJP at a national scale, while on the other it tries to appear more Hindu-centric than the BJP. It is targeting the vote bank of both. That is why AAP making a mark in the Gujarat assembly election, even by securing a significant vote share if not winning many seats, should ring an alarm bell for both parties. Its failure in Gujarat will, by all likelihood, keep the 2024 contest polarized between the BJP and the Congress in most of this belt – an equation both parties are more comfortable with.