Mehsana (Gujarat): Congress seems to have set off its election campaign with vice president Rahul Gandhi addressing a rally in Mehsana – a Patel stronghold district of north Gujarat – on Wednesday.
Gandhi’s address comes amidst speculation of elections being brought forward in the state. The assembly election in Gujarat is due only in December 2017. However, there are rumours that it may be held as early as May.
Mehsana, the business headquarters of north Gujarat, is dominated by Patels who are a decisive vote bank in Gujarat. Noticeably, the district saw one of the most violent agitations against the BJP during the anti-reservation movement (Patidar Anamat Andolan) lead by Hardik Patel in August last year.
Following the agitation, the BJP lost its hold in rural areas and lost local body elections that followed in 2015. The Congress won five district panchayats and 27 taluka panchayats then, all wrested from the BJP.
Perhaps, gauging the importance of the Patels – who are about 15% of the population – Gandhi made a stop at Unjha, a town in Mehsana to visit the Umiya Mata temple, revered by the Kadva Patels, a sub-caste of the Patel community.
The Patels are divided into two main sub-castes – Kadva and Leuva. “The north Gujarat districts like Mehsana and Banaskatha are dominated by Kadva Patels who form a majority in the state too, followed by Leuva Patels and then two smaller sub-castes – Chaudharys and Anjanas,” explains Achyut Yagnik, an Ahmedabad-based political analyst and activist. Together they form about 14 to 15% of the state’s electorate. “It is important to note”, he says, “that Patels have been the BJP’s traditional support base since 1984-85. Before that, Congress had a strong hold over north Gujarat until the regime of Madhavsinh Solanki, who was the chief minister of Gujarat four times and came to power in the 1980s with his support base and theory of KHAM – Khastriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim. This led other communities to lose political significance, one being the Patels. As a backlash, the period witnessed two major anti-reservation movements, one between 1976-80 and second in 1985, giving way to the BJP which had already started to unite all higher castes under the Hindutva umbrella.” those
“The Congress now is doing what BJP had done then – trying to encash on the ire of the Patels after an anti-reservation movement. However, the Patel vote bank may not suddenly fall in favour of the Congress. The Patels are politically divided. While the younger generation of Patels who seem to have been influenced by Hardik Patel may go against the BJP, there are still some among the older generation who are loyal BJP voters and might not change sides,” added Yagnik.
Interestingly, Gandhi refrained from talking about the quota stir at the Mehsana rally, except for stating that the Patidar youth and women were protesting peacefully but the state government got the police to lathi-charge them.
Gandhi limited himself to attacking Modi on demonetisation, remarking, “Demonetisation has broken the backbones of farmers in the country who do not pay or deal in card or cheque but only in cash.”
He also said that Modi has handed over 60% of the country’s resources to 50 families who are in Australia – a curious amalgamation of different allegations he has been making, all rolled into one.
In a 45-minute speech, he also raised the case of Mallya and accused Modi of receiving funds from the Sahara and Birla conglomerates when he was chief minister of Gujarat.
“Rahul Gandhi’s visit may not make much of a difference in the polemics of Gujarati politics but it will certainly bring the party into pre-election momentum and may keep the intra-party differences between factions at bay before elections,” said Yagnik.
The Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) spokesperson stated that Gandhi is scheduled to visit south Gujarat next, to gear up the party workers. “Congress has already folded up its sleeve in the state and is preparing for upcoming elections,” said GPCC spokesperson Manish Doshi.
The BJP, on its part, took a dig at Congress on the issue. “The more he [Rahul Gandhi] campaigns in the state, the better is it for the BJP,” BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya said.
However, with Prime Minister Modi visiting Deesa, a town in Banaskatha district (about 100 kilometres from Mehsana) about a fortnight back to address a farmers rally, the BJP does not seem to be laid back about the upcoming elections. Noticeably, Deesa is an adivasi dominated area in north Gujarat. When the traditional vote bank of the Patels seems divided, the BJP rally might be a move to tap into a non-traditional vote bank.
“BJP has been toughing out multiple movements since 2015 with the Patidar Anamat Aandolan lead by Hardik Patel, shaking the traditional vote base that had kept the party in power since 1995. With the Dalit movement this year, the embattled BJP anointed Vijay Rupani as its new chief minister replacing Anandiben Patel while the party high command seemingly gave marching orders to her. Dalits, though, are just 7% of the population and may not make any difference in voting pattern,” said Yagnik.
Interestingly, with Arvind Kejriwal’s visit to Surat in October this year – the business headquarters of south Gujarat and another Patel dominated area – it seems AAP is also planning to join the fray. With both Congress and AAP trying to draw in the Patels, a sizeable number of Patidar votes might not fall into the BJP fold.
To placate the angry Patels, the BJP had appointed Nitin Patel, then health minister, a karva patidar from Mehsana, to be the deputy chief minister. Patel who was considered second only to Anandiben Patel in the previous ministry could not stand up to expectations and failed to handle the Patidar issue.
Instead, the baton was passed to Vijay Rupani, a Jain leader from Rajkot even though Jains are just 1% of the total population of the state.