With rising social tensions in the state and a looming assembly poll, the BJP is hard-pressed to ensure it does not lose Gujarat. Changing the chief minister is a short-term damage-control measure at best.
Anandiben Patel’s resignation as Gujarat’s chief minister was hardly a surprise as speculations had been rife since May that she may pave the way for a younger leader before the state goes to polls next year. Anadiben cited the unofficial party rule that sets the age bar at 75 years for public life for its leaders as the reason for her resignation; she turns 75 in a few months. However, as her offer to resign, via a Facebook post, came close on the heels of growing Dalit unrest in Gujarat and the violent Patidar agitation last year, the act was automatically viewed as the BJP’s quick-fix response to the unprecedented crisis.
An administrative debacle
The BJP has comprehensively won assembly elections in Gujarat for the last 18 years, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi ruling the state for almost 11 years before contesting the parliamentary polls in 2014. For the BJP, Gujarat is a prestige state. The Gujarat model of economic development became one of the most crucial factors that helped the party secure a majority on its own in the 2014 general elections. Yet, in the last two-and-a-half years, Gujarat has been in a state of perpetual social crisis, as if it was brewing from much before.
First, the Patel community, which formed the backbone of the BJP, agitated violently to demand reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. The group, which comprises almost 1.5 crore of the state’s six crore population, is an affluent peasant caste and a substantial chunk from the group has been migrating to the West for better avenues. Last year, under the stewardship of the 22-year-old Hardik Patel, a great mass from the community almost held the state in siege while demanding reservation. This unnerved the BJP as Patels, alternatively called Patidars, have been its chief economic and political resource.
Second, the party’s patronage of gau rakshak groups, primarily meant to target Muslims, showed its ugly side when the brutality of the vigilante groups was captured in a video that went viral. In the video the so-called gau rakshaks were seen savagely flogging Dalits, who have historically been skinning cattle for a living. This triggered a widespread unrest among Dalits who, to mark their protest, dumped cattle carcasses in government offices, further unsettling the BJP. Although Dalits comprise only around 9% of the state’s population and have traditional been Congress voters, a cocktail of Patidar and Dalit fury has led to an administratively unmanageable social crisis in the state, the impact of which could be felt across Gujarat.
This unrest occurred under the leadership of Anadiben, who has the distinction of being the first woman chief minister of Gujarat and who Modi chose to be his successor by ignoring the pleas of various other senior leaders in the state. But as it turned out, Modi’s nominee proved to be an administrative debacle, failing not only herself but the entire party.
Much has been made out of Anadiben’s resignation. Some political observers believe that the Amit Shah-Modi duo, in-charge of the BJP’s significant decisions, forced her to resign for her inability to handle the social crisis.
Some others felt that Anandiben had to bear the brunt of her age-old and well-known rivalry with Shah. Anandiben is said to have confided in many senior journalists in Gujarat that she was never given complete control of the state’s administration. One senior journalist told The Wire that Anandiben complained about how Shah overruled many of her administrative decisions, including that of the appointment of the police commissioner, and how he controlled the state’s home ministry.
Shah was the state’s home minister during Modi’s tenure as chief minister. During his tenure as home minister, Shah found himself at the centre of ghastly controversies, including the alleged fake encounters of Ishrat Jahan and Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kausar Bi and Shiekh’s associate Tulsiram Prajapati. Shah was also charged of ordering illegal surveillance on a woman and suspended IAS officer Pradeep Sharma, in what came to be known as the ‘snoopgate’ case.
A few political workers in the BJP also think that Anandiben could not stand firm in the face of growing internal dissensions within the state’s unit of the party. State party leaders like Parshottam Rupala, Vijay Rupani, Bhikhubhai Dalsaniya and Nitin Patel – now front-runners for the top post – are well-known rivals of the outgoing chief minister. Sources in the BJP’s state unit told The Wire that Nitin Patel actively lobbied with the agitating Patels last year, creating further troubles for the chief minister.
Anandiben’s loyalists claim that the last few decisions she took before resigning was intended to mark her protest and defy her branding as an administrative failure. Three days before she resigned, the Gujarat government implemented the 7th pay commission recommendations, withdrew toll taxes along state highways for small vehicles – a longstanding demand in Gujarat – and also cancelled a majority of the police cases against Patels that were registered during their agitation.
In a constantly unfolding political environment, these factors may have contributed to Anandiben’s resignation. But more than anything else, her resignation, just a year before the state goes to the polls, clearly points towards the BJP’s nervousness. A combination of factors like years of anti-incumbency, internal rivalries and a lack of a dominant figure like Modi has created a critical situation for the party in a state that has been its strongest bastion. A loss in Gujarat may be more damaging for the BJP’s national prospects as it will boost the opposition’s confidence. The only factor that still goes in the party’s favour is the lack of any credible opposition in the state. The Congress, which has managed to secure at least 35% votes in every assembly elections and has been finishing a not-so-distant second, has still not shown any signs of revival in Gujarat lacklustre campaigns. The Aam Aadmi Party, which has claimed to have enrolled thousands of members in Gujarat, has not shown any electoral spark yet.
Unable to read the signs
Despite these immediate realpolitik considerations, the message of Anadiben’s hurried ousting is quite ominous for not just the party, as reflected in the BJP’s anxious responses, but also for Gujarat’s prospects. The unrest in the state, which has had political implications on the BJP, is largely because of the state government’s failure to stem the economic crisis in the state, according to social scientists. Ahmedabad-based sociologist Ghanshyam Shah believes that the state is going through a severe economic crisis and the growing unrest among different communities is a result of that. He says that the pro-business Gujarat Model and projections of its success is a result of an aggressive public relations campaign by the BJP. However, he says, the fact remains that the state faces an unprecedented agrarian crisis that has affected the Patels the most and caused a severe shortage of employment.
“Business communities (who benefit from the Gujarat Model) constitute less than 12% of the population. Fifteen percent of the people are Adivasis, more than 15% constitute fishing communities, including the Kolis and the Kharvas, not to speak of pastoral and other peasants and artisan communities and Dalits. Conflicts between some of the communities around economic and social issues have been as prevalent in electoral politics as is the case in other states,” Shah had told this correspondent during the Patel agitation last year.
He added: “…by the government’s own admission, jobs have not increased in proportion (of the increase in investments) or as projected. The government admitted in the Assembly that “on account of capital-intensive investment, industrial employment in Gujarat has gone down”. Employment per factory has significantly declined, from 99 workers in 1960-61 to 59.44 in 2005. No effort has been made in the subsequent years to arrest the declining trend in employment, whereas the average invested capital per factory has increased more than 2.5 times in less than a decade. Moreover, most of the jobs that have been created are in the informal sector, with casual or contractual employment, without any social security. Wages in Gujarat are lower than in several other industrially developed States”.
He further said that the unrest in Gujarat among dominant communities who support the BJP is more economic than political, the reasons being a global recession in industries like diamond polishing, machine tools, casting, ceramics and the like. These industries are controlled by the dominant caste groups. “Workers have been retrenched or are getting lower wages than before. The number of sick micro, small and medium units has increased from 20,615 in 2012-13 to 49,003 in 2014-15. According to the RBI [Reserve Bank of India], outstanding loans of MSMEs [micro, small and medium industries] in Gujarat trebled in two years from Rs.836 crore in 2012-13 to Rs.2,601 crore in 2014-15,” Ghanshyam said.
Similarly, he said that due to the two-decade agrarian crisis, the landowners, a majority being Patidars, are bearing a loss every year. And thus, the agricultural workers, or landless workers coming mostly from backward classes and Dalits, have to bear the brunt of the crisis the most. “The average farm wage in Gujarat is Rs.169, which is lower than that in most states, except Madhya Pradesh.”
Deft administration in such a scenario would mean increased support to these communities from the state government and not short-term grievance redressal measures. The Gujarat Model, so successfully projected by the BJP, is clearly incomplete in addressing the needs of the majority of population.
Yet, both Anandiben and Shah justified her resignation by citing the upcoming Vibrant Gujarat summit, the torchbearer of the Gujarat Model, held annually. “I am asking the party to relieve me two months in advance (of her turning 75) as the new Chief Minister will require time to settle down, especially when the State is going to face elections in 2017 and an important event like Vibrant Gujarat Summit is to be held in January,” she said in her resignation. Shah, too, pleaded about the summit when asked questions about her resignation.
The inability of the BJP to gauge an impending economic crisis, reflected in the social tensions, has led to the party finding knee-jerk solutions. For long, the party had relied on its Hindutva card to unite the dominant Hindu caste groups in the state. However, these groups face an ironical situation at the moment as the state government’s sole focus is on the Gujarat Model, which benefits them only a little, while completely neglecting the more pertinent crisis unfolding in the state, the impact of which pinches them everyday.
At the same time, their political representatives have only grown bigger in stature – both politically and economically. Anandiben was in the midst of a controversy when she was accused of unduly favouring the business associates of her daughter Anar Patel in a land deal during her tenure as revenue minister under Modi. Around 250 acres of land in the eco-sensitive Gir Lion Sanctuary was given to the her daughter’s business associates at a mere Rs 15 square metre. Similar allegations of undue favours were made against her son Swetank Patel too.
Similarly, Shah rose to prominence under Modi, from being a RSS worker to party president. Likewise, many leaders in the BJP have been accused of accumulating huge wealth as ministers and power brokers. The Hindutva card that united many under the umbrella of the Sangh parivar has hardly helped the common supporters materially. In fact, the economic crisis has broken their backs. With barely any state support, the dominant castes have looked for illegitimate employment like becoming gau raksha workers, have displayed misplaced anger against unprivileged communities like the Dalits by demanding reservation or violently acting against them and pulled the state government up for its non-performance. Anandiben’s resignation and the BJP’s crisis in the state is only a symptom of a larger crisis that has not been given any significance by the state government.
RSS taking control?
“Modi was too big in stature for the protests to be directed against him. After he left for Delhi, internal rivalries sprung up in the party. Now every one wants a share of the profit’s pie. What we are witnessing now were felt even during Modi’s time but he dealt these dissensions with an iron hand. It will be wrong to blame Anandiben alone. The crisis that the state is going through is a result of Modi’s complete departure from a social model of governance to a pro-business one,” said a senior RSS leader in the state.
According to some BJP workers in the state, the RSS is pushing the name of Rupani, a minister in Anandiben’s cabinet, for the chief ministerial post. Rupani, the MLA from Rajkot, is known to be close to Shah and Modi, and the RSS. He started off his political career in the RSS as a worker and rose through the ranks because of his administrative abilities. At the same time, he is also known for his abstinence in public life. While the RSS believes that the appointment of Rupani, a Bania, would not just help the BJP in projecting a non-partisan image among communities except the Patels but also help assuage the deepening perception among the public that the party’s politicians do not practice what they preach.
The RSS clearly senses an Hindutva fatigue among its supporters, mostly resulting out of the economic crisis. As it is ill-placed to address the economic policy at the moment, it has been trying to stem the crisis with short-term measures. For instance, it is alleged that Prakash Javadekar replaced the controversial Smriti Irani as union human resources minister on the insistence of the RSS. Najma Heptullah and G.M. Siddheshwara were removed from the Modi’s central cabinet also on the RSS’s command. The BJP cited the age factor for their removal, just like in Anandiben’s case. In Madhya Pradesh too, Babulal Gaur and Sartaj Singh, ministers in Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s cabinet and known critics of the RSS’s influence in the state government, were also removed after citing age reasons. Yet, UP’s Deoria parliamentarian Kalraj Mishra, well above 75 years, still serves as the union cabinet minister for micro, small and medium enterprises. It is believed that the RSS wants him to retain the post until the state polls are over.
Although Anadiben’s resignation reflects the Sangh parivar’s quick political reflex – a sign of it maturing as an electoral force – such damage-control can at best be categorised as short-term. Unless, it addresses the real economic concerns through a series of programmatic actions, social tensions are bound to rise and such damage control exercises may prove to be inadequate. With the Hindutva fatigue clearly being perceived in Gujarat, the BJP might have to do some serious stocktaking in the near future.