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Why Gujarat May End Up Being a Hard Nut to Crack for the BJP

With the Congress banking on anti-incumbency and the BJP seeing dwindled support among the dominant communities, the ruling party is unlikely to have an easy ride in Gujarat.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP chief Amit Shah. Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP president Amit Shah. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: BJP president Amit Shah defied convention on Gandhi Jayanti when he announced in Porbandar at a party rally that the Gujarat assembly election is scheduled for the first week of December. With the Election Commission yet to officially announce dates, one wonders whether Shah was merely guessing or seeking to override the EC’s mandate. Either way, with Shah sounding the bugle, the much-awaited electoral battle has now officially begun. After all, the Modi-Shah duo considers Gujarat its prestige state, with the saffron party ruling there continuously for 22 years.

As the Congress is hoping to kick off its national campaign for the 2019 general polls by overthrowing the BJP from the state, the battle lines for a bipolar contest have now been drawn. On the face of it, while it is clear that the grand old party – rendered organisationally quite weak in the state over the past two decades – will have to arm itself with a novel strategy and renewed energy, it has also become apparent that the BJP will not have an easy ride this time.

Shah, while announcing the elections, focused on the “Gujarat model of development” and attacked Congress scion Rahul Gandhi for not being able to see this reality because of his “Italian glasses”, a direct – if somewhat tired – reference to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s country of origin. At a time when the Congress is banking upon perceptible anti-incumbency against the BJP, and the BJP’s support from among the state’s dominant communities is dwindling, Shah’s opening comment struck observers as being overly defensive.

The BJP had come into power by stitching together a coalition of various communities within the OBC section. Caste groups like Patidars, Thakors and Rajputs spearheaded the coalition and formed the bulk of the BJP’s leadership. This saffron coalition has successfully challenged former Congress chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki’s formula of getting the Kshatriyas, Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims together under the party’s umbrella.

But if trends from the past few years are taken into account, a sizeable section of this OBC vote is set to go against the saffron party this time around. The Patidar and Thakor agitations, although apathetic to each other, have taken aim at the state government for rising unemployment and an unprecedented crisis in the agrarian sector. Both these communities are dominant and affluent, and command a substantial section of votes especially in the Saurashtra region (which comprises more than 60 seats in the 182-member assembly) and in central Gujarat.

In both these regions, the BJP has had great successes in elections before – but they could prove to be the party’s Achilles’ heel in 2017. If seen together with the ongoing Dalit agitation against the state’s poor response to growing cow vigilantism against cattle rearers and traders, the perception that Gujarat’s  model of development hasn’t quite addressed the basic issues related to livelihoods has been gaining solid ground.

Things were different for the BJP while it had the advantage of the cult that Modi had built for himself as the longest serving chief minister of the state. However, after he became the prime minister, the BJP has been facing trouble as far as its state leadership is concerned. Modi’s chosen successor, Anandiben Patel, was abruptly removed amidst charges of corruption and highhandedness. Saurashtra leader and RSS loyalist Vijay Rupani was handed over the mantle to stem the opposition, but most BJP insiders agree that Rupani, a low-key leader, hasn’t been able to consolidate and control the volatile political ground.

In such circumstances, Shah has indicated with his speech in Porbandar that the Gujarat model will be the political rhetoric the party will use ahead of the upcoming polls. According to BJP sources in the state, the party hopes that this narrative will have an appeal across caste groups and bypass social anger against the party. At the same time, it would highlight the achievements of the Gujarat model to launch an attack against the Congress, which until now has solely relied on the anti-incumbency factor against the BJP but has not offered any alternative model of growth.

Positive outlook within the Congress 

However, making things difficult for the BJP is a resurgent Congress, which has, unusually, hit the election mode ahead of the saffron party. Rahul Gandhi’s tour of Saurashtra, which is also a Patidar stronghold, in the last week of September, and him choosing to visit constituencies where his party has historically performed poorly, signal a positive outlook within the party.

Gandhi did well in the optics game too. In all his speeches, he targeted the Rupani government for failing to procure groundnut and cotton – two significant cash crops in Gujarat – on time. Poor procurement by the state government resulting in a steep fall in crop prices has led farmers – belonging mostly to dominant OBC communities – to agitate over the last few months. At the same time, he attacked the Modi government’s hasty implementation of the goods and services tax to cut some ice with traders, who form a significant population in Gujarat and have historically supported the BJP, but have been protesting against GST of late.

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi meeting the supporters during his visit to Gujarat. Credit: PTI

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi meeting the supporters during his visit to Gujarat. Credit: PTI

Since unemployment has become a huge issue, especially after the implementation of GST, Gandhi made it a point to interact with sections of youth and women. In order to diffuse the BJP’s image as the only Hindu force, Gandhi also visited important Hindu shrines of Saurashtra.

Anti-incumbency factor

One of Gandhi’s aides told The Wire that the anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP is quite perceptible on the ground, but the lack of a credible state-level leadership is holding the Congress back. “Gandhi’s recent trip to Gujarat was an eye-opening experience for many in the Congress. People are visibly angry. Many community leaders formed a beeline to meet Gandhi at every stop he made. In blocks where the Congress has not received even 4,000 votes, hundreds of influential people waited to meet him privately. This is undoubtedly a welcome sign for the Congress,” he said.

However, he added a note of caution as he felt that none of the state-level party leaders, including the state Congress chief Bharatsinh Solanki, has put up a strong opposition for reasons unknown to the central leadership. According to many within the Congress, some of the influential state-level leaders fear reprisals from the ruling BJP, which seems to know about their allegedly corrupt personal histories.

To put its own house in order, the central leadership in August unprecedentedly appointed four working presidents for the state unit. Since all of them – Tushar Chaudhary, an Adivasi leader and son of former chief minister Amarsingh Chaudhary, Patel leaders Paresh Dhanavi and Kuwarji Bawaliya, and Karsan Das Sonali, a Dalit – belong to different communities and different regions of the state, it is apparent that the party has kept caste and regional considerations in mind. It has also constituted a 32-member state election committee and has brought back Satyajit Gaikwad, once a rising star in the Congress, as the vice-president of the state unit.

On social media, the Congress has had some degree of success in sidelining the BJP. With aggressive campaigns like vikas gando thai gayo chhe (BJP’s model of development has gone crazy) or mara hada chettri gaya (You have fooled me), it has forced even Shah, who has successfully employed a social media campaign to wrest the political advantage nationally, to tell people in Gujarat to not get swayed by “anti-BJP propaganda” on WhatsApp and Facebook.

An Ahmedabad-based RSS worker, who did not want to be named, told The Wire that the BJP will lose a significant section of its votes among the youth and that GST too has hurt the party a lot. “That is why,” he said, “the party is thinking of focusing on issues which will address the concerns of people above 35 years of age and simultaneously create a Modi hawa before polls. After the recent attack on Rahul Gandhi by the BJP leadership, RSS workers have communicated to the central leadership that the party should not launch a direct attack on Gandhi as the tactic may boomerang on us and give unnecessary publicity to him.”

He added that according to an Intelligence Bureau survey, the BJP may struggle to go beyond 110 seats, in which case it will still retain power but would have performed poorly compared to the previous elections.

Notwithstanding the report, which could either be credible or merely a bureaucratic exercise, RSS workers’ comments clearly signal that winning the state again may not be an easy task for the BJP. And the party realises that Modi alone can save the party from a possible debacle.

Clearly, the Congress is taking the contest seriously, like never before. Multiple tactics are being employed by the party leadership to change the political tide in the state.

Speaking to The Wire, independent activist and political analyst Sagar Rabari said, “The mood in Gujarat is anti-BJP at the moment except in some districts of south Gujarat like Valsad, Navsari and Surat where the Kori population is substantial. Koris (an OBC community) still support the BJP. The party has worked among Adivasis too and that may help it in winning some seats in south Gujarat. Elsewhere, in more affluent areas of Gujarat, there is a visible anger. But whether this will translate into votes for the organisationally weak Congress is something which we do not know yet.”

Without a clear alternative at present, the Gujarat polls will be won by the party which pulls ahead in this outmanoeuvring game that will follow in the next two months. With both parties beginning to raise their voice – and pitch – against each other, the stage is set for a bitter political fight.