Modi-powered BJP gears up for tough Gujarat contest

Modi-powered BJP gears up for tough Gujarat contest

By JOYEETA BASU | Ahmedabad, Vadodara | 3 December, 2017
A section of the general public is talking about a close fight, particularly in the rural areas.
Gujarat appears to have developed into a contest between the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress, ahead of the 9 and 14 December elections, and not a sweep for the ruling party. Even though a chat with local BJP workers makes it clear that they have been actually given the target of reaching 150 seats, if not more. The challenger Congress is publicly talking about returning to power in Gujarat. However, Congress sources say that central and local party leaders held a meeting at their Ahmedabad headquarters, Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan on Monday, where they admitted that returning to power did not appear possible. The primary focus of Ashok Gehlot, Congress’ in-charge of Gujarat, is restricting the BJP to around 100 seats in the 182-member Assembly, said a source. The recently dissolved Assembly had 117 BJP members, and 59 Congress members, a number that reduced to 43 because of defections to the former.

Experts are divided on the number of BJP’s expected seats. Most say that the BJP will get a simple majority, with around 95 seats, while others are talking about a comfortable 100-plus, even going up to 130. BJP insiders say that their main focus is on retaining the 2012 tally and then see from where the new seats will come. However, everyone agrees that 22 years of anti-incumbency, and the negative effects of demonetisation and GST are making the ride bumpy for the ruling party. In fact, a section of the general public is actually talking about a kaante ka takkar (a tough fight, fight to the finish), particularly in the rural areas. The urban centres are largely with BJP, except for some areas in and around the trading hub of Surat.

Experts say that in the marginal seats (won by 3,000 or fewer votes) the fight may come down to strategic placement of candidates and booth-level micromanagement on voting day, with the party with the better organisation winning the race. The Narendra Modi factor is of immense importance, with the street talking about his ability to turn a contest into a comfortable victory, single-handedly. And as a Congress source said, their party is gradually realising that Gujaratis may not want to hurt Modi, after all; also, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani’s benign and honest image is helping the BJP campaign.

RAHUL’S SOFT HINDUTVA NOT WORKING

Sources in Congress say that Rahul’s meetings are not attracting the kind of crowd that the party was expecting these to. That his soft-Hindutva card of temple visits is not having an impact on the people. A common question being asked of Congress workers is, if Rahul wanted to prove his Hindu credentials, why he didn’t visit temples during Navratri, Gujarat’s most important religious festival. As a Congress worker told this newspaper, “People are saying, we know Narendra Modi fasts during Navratri. He doesn’t have to prove that he is a Hindu. But why did Rahul’s temple visits start just before elections?” Even though Gujarat may appear to have been divided along caste lines this time, courtesy the Congress’ electoral strategy of propping up three caste leaders, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani, the undercurrent of religious identity is still very strong and Congress is scoring poorly in this area. Avoiding visits to Muslim shrines has not helped Rahul erase the popular perception that “Congress is a Muslim party”. At least one Patidar farmer near Sanand described the Congress in as many words to this correspondent, while a small trader affected by demonetisation talked about there being no other option but BJP because no one else would protect the interest of Hindus. The effect that the recent controversy over Rahul’s Somnath temple visit will have on the Gujarat electorate is yet to be gauged.

In this context, say sources, PM Modi’s visit to the Swaminarayan temple at Akshardham to attend the silver jubilee function there may have blunted, to an extent, Congress’ most “potent” weapon, the Patidar agitation. A large segment of Patidars are followers of the Swaminarayan sect.

THE PATIDAR PROBLEM

Caste fissures in Gujarat are out in the open, with Congress trying to revive a modified version of its KHAM formula—Kshatriya, Harijan (Dalit), Adivasi and Muslim—which helped the party win the state in 1985. Dr Jayesh Shah, a research consultant with Vadodara’s Centre for Culture and Development, calls the modified version the KHAP formula, where Patidars have replaced Muslims in Congress’ scheme of things. However, the Patidar factor may not be paying as much dividend as the party expected it to, especially since Hardik Patel has made his political inclinations clear. “I have interviewed almost 80 Patidars of five different regions. Out of 80, 60 say that they (Congress) have cheated them. Either they have cheated them, or Hardik had cheated them. So I asked them why. They said that Kapil Sibal has a record of cheating people. They don’t consider Sibal capable of giving them reservation. The whole (Sibal) formula (devised to give them reservation) was circulated among the Patidars, which was a mistake. Hardik should not have revealed his cards,” said Jayesh Shah. And even if these Patidars don’t shift to the BJP, they might “go silent”, he added. He said Hardik would have an influence in some pockets, primarily in North Gujarat, Saurashtra and South Gujarat.

It is also not helping Congress’ case that most of Hardik’s comrades have switched sides to the BJP. The BJP too has done some damage control. The Patidar agitation spiralled out of control in 2015 when force was used to curb it. The removal of Anandiben Patel as Chief Minister is still considered to be a slight by many Patidars, this correspondent found out. But then, as Dr Vidyut Joshi, a former Vice Chancellor of Bhavnagar University told this newspaper in Ahmedabad, “BJP took all the religious institutions with them. And religious institutions gave a public statement that they didn’t believe in what Hardik says. So, obviously people will believe them. Unjha is a very big religious place for Patidars and BJP has given a ticket to an Unjha religious man there, Narayan Kaka, who is an old Patidar. BJP has given messages, that yes we are for Patidars. So 2/3rd Patidars may go to BJP this time and only 1/3rd, that too youth and rural (voters) may remain with Hardik.”

Moreover, Patidars too are not a uniform entity, and are divided into Kadva (Hardik’s sub-caste) and Leuva, with the Leuvas more inclined to BJP than the Kadvas.

According to Priyavadan Patel, retired professor of political science at Vadodara’s MS University, the pressure of elections is unravelling Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), and the Leuva Patels in central Gujarat—in Anand and Vadodara—are returning to BJP.

HARDIK & CO PARTIALLY EFFECTIVE

Hardik’s “young, headstrong and irresponsible” image is also hurting him. In fact, all the young leaders that the Congress is relying on to polarise the caste pot in its favour, are battling with this problem. The common perception is that they are in it for their own interests. That Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani are fighting elections on either Congress ticket or with Congress support has added considerable heft to this perception. Alpesh Thakor tried to model himself in the Bal/Raj Thackeray mould, by starting a social movement with demands like 85% reservation for jobs for Gujaratis and building a Thakor Sena to implement prohibition properly, among other things, thus adding a lot of “lustre” to his stature in his community. His earlier rallies used to attract lakhs of people. Coming from the Congress stock—his father was with the Congress, who tried for, but didn’t get an MLA ticket—Alpesh then shifted to politics, and is now a Congress candidate from Radhanpur. The Congress’ aim is to mobilise the OBCs through Alpesh as Thakors belong to the OBC community. This has to be seen in the context of the rising importance of the OBCs in Gujarat. According to Vidyut Joshi, OBCs are competing for dominance with the Patidars and may even displace them eventually. But Congress’ strategy of using Alpesh to attract OBCs may not work, said Vishnu Pandya, author of several books and chairman of the Gujarat Sahitya Akademi: “OBCs have 82 castes. Out of which only one is Thakor.” “Alpesh is not an OBC leader. He is a Thakor leader,” he added.

Vidyut Joshi sees at least half of Thakor voters going to BJP, in spite of Alpesh joining the Congress.

As for Jignesh Mevani, the young Dalit leader may even end up losing the election in Vadgam from where he is contesting as an independent candidate with Congress backing. “Dalits are only 7% of the state’s population. Dalits are very agitated…but thinly spread. Every village will have a few Dalits so they are not important in a constituency,” said Joshi. “So you can say these three agitations have made some sort of a shift (away from BJP), but not a total shift,” he added.

Most importantly, according to Vishnu Pandya, Gujaratis have not forgotten what happened in 1985, when Congress came to power using the KHAM formula. Soon it was a case of Hindus versus Muslims, Savarna versus Dalits. There was open anarchy, a complete breakdown of law and order. “That division did not suit Gujarat,” Pandya said. Gradually, in a few years, power shifted to BJP.

CONGRESS STRATEGY, OR THE LACK OF IT

The common consensus in Gujarat is that Congress has gone wrong in aligning with the three caste leaders publicly, instead of supporting them strategically and covertly. But then strategy or the implementation of it, is not Congress’ strong point. 22 years of anti-incumbency presented the Congress with the golden opportunity to try to dislodge the BJP government, especially now that Modi has shifted to Delhi, feels Jayesh Shah. “Gujarat is very much negative on primary health, primary education, then there is private education, there is the issue of medical health. There are many such issues that Congress failed to generate mass awareness or mass movement on,” he said. “This was the appropriate time to revive the Congress, but they started campaigning very late, just four-five months ago.” “Instead of going for casteist politics, they should have gone for issue based politics. Gujarati people are mostly entrepreneurs, small traders, businessmen. They do not want Gujarat to return to that era of 1985. Also, Congress could have tapped the age group of 18-20 years, which has seen only BJP rule. In fact, the little bump that the Congress is getting in these elections, is coming from this age group, which comprises around 20% of the voters. But Congress failed to tap them.”

Ticket distribution too has been below par, with grassroots leaders often ignored in favour of “imported” ones. Claims and counterclaims have been made about how tickets were distributed for considerations other than political. There is a “rumour” that some leaders are more interested in protecting their businesses than fighting elections, so may have an “understanding” with the BJP. There is no way of verifying these “rumours”.

But Congress’ main problem is its cadre base, or the lack of it. “Congress does not have workers. Whoever is there, fights for respective MLA seats. RSS has 60 organisations, including Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, Rashtra Sevika Samiti; there is one Dalit outfit; a Patel outfit; then Sanskrit Bharati, 60 in all. All of them are working for BJP this time…BJP (says it) has a crore members in Gujarat,” said Vishnu Pandya.

BJP WORKERS HOLD THE KEY

BJP is a juggernaut when it comes to cadre strength in Gujarat. If the difference between BJP and Congress’ vote share has been consistently 10% over the years, it’s because of the additional 10% voters being mobilised by the BJP cadre, said Vidyut Joshi. According to Jayesh Shah, “In 2007, BJP first started with ‘one booth ten youth (below 30 years of age)’. In 2012, BJP introduced the panna pramukh (one person in charge of every page of the voting list). Then in 2014, BJP introduced the booth vistarak yojna. This year they have introduced the Shakti Kendra, whereby a voting centre with three or four booths becomes the power centre of the election.” The Shakti Kendras are manned by five people. BJP has a total of 1,337,342 panna pramukhs in Gujarat. Then there are booth in-charges, and booth guardians. Shah, who has studied Gujarat’s booth-wise voting patterns in detail, says that BJP is going to field a huge number of workers per booth, with a section being diverted from the “stronger” booths to the “weaker” booths where the BJP got less than 30% votes: “These people will be in the ‘weaker’ areas for 15 days; stay there, talk to people. Narendra Modi had arranged a meeting for 7 to 7.5 lakh panna pramukhs in Gandhinagar a month ago. There is no way that the BJP is losing these elections. This is not a miracle of the EVM, but the miracle of micromanagement of elections.”

Jayesh Shah is among the rare commentators who is predicting a near-sweep for the BJP, based on his theory that higher the percentage of votes, higher the number of seats for the ruling party, because that percentage will reflect the number of voters that the cadre has been able to mobilise. It becomes a tough fight only if the voting percentage goes down to 50%, but which is unlikely as Gujarat has been consistently clocking over 60%, he says. “In the 2012 Assembly elections, up to 2.30 pm, there was only 30% voting. From 2.30 onwards, BJP karyakartas started roaming around the city, and passed the message to every booth, ‘BJP khatre mein hai’. So BJP workers roamed every lane, every society, asking people to come out and vote, and in the last two hours one could see huge queues outside the booths. It will be the same this time,” he said.

REGIONS AND TROUBLE SPOTS

There is much speculation among journalists and some commentators that the BJP is doing badly in Saurashtra region and North Gujarat. The commentators this correspondent spoke to are unanimous that the BJP is in trouble in North Gujarat, the seat of the Patidar agitation—in Mehsana, Unjha, etc. But Saurashtra may be a different ball game. The region comprises 11 districts including Rajkot and Vishnu Pandya is certain that the BJP is putting up a stellar performance in Saurashtra.

The other “surprise” of these elections may be the Adivasi areas, particularly Gujarat’s “Purva Patti”, the eastern belt bordering Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Priyavadan Patel, the retired professor of MS University, had earlier carried out research on behalf of CSDS, an ICSSR research institute. He talked about how the tribal voters in this belt were shifting to the BJP. “The RSS is working there. The Christian missionaries are there, so an element of Hindutva is also coming there.”

As Vishnu Pandya said, RSS’ vanvashi (tribals) development bodies have done a lot of work in the tribal areas which started with Suryakant Acharya, a Rajya Sabha member, going in the Adivasi areas and staying there for three years, 20 years ago: “Congress had a hold on these areas earlier, not anymore. Now the BJP has a lot of influence in the tribal areas.” So the Adivasi pillar of Congress’ KHAM/KHAP may no longer be as stable as it expected it to be.

RURAL ANGER, DEMONETISATION AND GST

There is no denying that there is a lot of anger against the BJP particularly among the smallest of traders who deal only in cash, because of demonetization, and also among bigger traders, a large chunk of whom had not been paying tax and dealing in “black”. While the smallest of traders are still unhappy, the anger of the bigger traders has shifted to the GST. The textile business is down by 20% to 40%. The roads in Ahmedabad’s busy Panchkuan cloth market were not as crowded as they would be on any other Tuesday afternoon, when this newspaper visited the place. There is anger in the rural areas as well, over prices of cotton, for instance. However, the money promised to flood affected farmers has started coming, which will mitigate the anger to an extent in affected areas. There is a feeling that this will impact the elections and ultimately it may boil down to strategic selection of candidates and booth management. Whether or not the Congress is able to capitalise on this, remains to be seen. It will also depend on how much BJP workers are able to convey to the rural voters and small traders why electing BJP back to power is akin to giving a boost to Modi.

 

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