Ever since he became the chief minister of Gujarat – and later the prime minister – the Bharatiya Janata Party’s favourite refrain has been “Modi hai to mumkin hai.” Everything is possible if Modi is there.
But it was perhaps in the 2017 state elections that BJP must have realised that everything is possible only if Modi is there.
This rings true as the party faces a tough 2022 polls under another chief minister. The anti-incumbency that set in during the previous Vijay Rupani regime and got worse in the course of and after the COVID-19 crisis continues under Bhupendra Patel, who was brought in just a year ago.
It was for the first time in its winning career of 30 years in Gujarat that the BJP plummeted to double digits, 99, in 2017. In other words, it rescued itself from defeat by seven seats in a House of 182. Needless to say, it was also the first time that the Congress should have seen a flicker of hope in the state which is its toughest challenge. But it didn’t.
And thus it was that Gujarat saw a serious contender in the Aam Aadmi Party, which walked into the field apparently left wide open for an opposition party. But significantly, as days and months passed by, the fledgling Delhi party has come to represent the proverbial elephant even in the BJP’s room.
Forget the opposition for now, what is it about the BJP that despite an impressive record of victories since the 1995 elections, the AAP publicly and the Congress leaders in private conversations see an opportunity in 2022 yet again after 2017?
Notably, since Narendra Modi became the prime minister in 2014, this is the Gujarat BJP’s second ever assembly election under a new chief minister.
The BJP has had three chief ministers, Anandiben Patel, Vijay Rupani and now Bhupendra Patel, in eight years since 2014. Both Patel and Rupani – the latter with his entire cabinet – were removed with palpable anti-incumbency staring at the BJP. There was no word of protest, except some fallen faces. Why? Well, Modi hai to mumkin hai.
BJP fought the 2015 local body elections under Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, the first after Modi, and reported a major debacle in the rural and good parts of peri-urban areas under the shadow of Hardik Patel’s pitched Patidar agitation. Anandiben was asked to step down and Rupani was brought in. But the stage for 2017 had already been set – the century-old Congress’ ride to triumph on the shoulders of a 22-year-old lad.
The party fought the 2017 assembly elections under Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and came perilously close to defeat but won, thanks singularly to Modi’s aggressive son-of-the-soil campaign. This was possible only because Modi was there.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, all 26 seats went to the BJP and saw incredible victory margins with the lowest of 1.25 lakh votes. Though Rupani was the chief minister during that time, every single vote went to Modi – and not BJP or Rupani. Even if the party had not campaigned, the 2019 victory would not have been any different.
As of now, the BJP is worse off than 2017. Not so much because AAP or Congress is queering its pitch but because of an overall restlessness prevailing across the state. Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel has been facing as many as 30 major and smaller level agitations from various sections of society, including a huge chunk of government employees from a variety of departments to the police and Lok Rakshak Dal staff.
Those on the warpath with the government include farmers, cattle-rearers, tribals, doctors, teachers, forest department staff, ASHA workers, frontline health workers who put their lives on the line during the COVID-19 crisis, government exam aspirants, autorickshaw drivers, roadside egg and non-vegetarian eatery owners and vendors, ex-Army personnel, vidya sahayaks (teachers on contract), mid-day meal staff and all government contract workers.
All of the above is in addition to an overarching agitation for implementation of the Old Pension Scheme touching all state government employees.
They have a variety of demands but the most common among them is the revision of pay grade – pending for years – and the abolition of the contract or outsourcing system since most of such staff have been carrying out the work of full-timers but have been paid like part-timers for many years. Such staff also include government teachers.
The contract and outsourcing system came into vogue after the first BJP government came to power in 1995 and thereafter it has been continuously expanded to cover almost all government departments, including health and education. It is pertinent to note that the previous Vijay Rupani government had also faced similar intense agitations by government staff who had the same demands. Such agitations were also in the backdrop of the BJP nosediving to 99 seats in 2017, though they might have been overshadowed by the Hardik Patel agitation, joined by Other Backward Class leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani.
What is worse, the BJP has this time been caught on the wrong foot by an agitation by its own saffron sibling, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the farmer wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The BKS has been on a warpath with the state government for several months with a charter of as many as 26 demands.
The frustration of the BKS’s farmer leaders, who had been on an indefinite sit-in protest in the state capital Gandhinagar for 27 days, reached climax when national BJP president J.P. Nadda held a ‘Namo Khedut Panchayat’ (Narendra Modi farmers’ convention) near the capital on September 20. BKS representatives were not called.
As Nadda told a huge audience of farmers that “only Prime Minister Narendra Modi had tirelessly championed the cause of the farmers since Independence and others had given only lip service”, a delegation of BKS leaders who asked to meet him were bundled out and whisked away in police vehicles.
They were let off only after the conclusion of Nadda’s Khedut Panchayat, which was organised to exhort the BJP rank and file to fan out across Gujarat and create awareness among farmers about the schemes initiated by the prime minister for them.
“It was surprising that the BJP workers prevented us from entering the venue even though it was a kisan panchayat. We had an argument with them, but by then the police came and whisked us away, and we were let off only after Nadda’s conference was over,” said Mansukh Patolia, Sah Prachar Pramukh (Gujarat co-chairman for communications) of the BKS.
In a press release on September 20, the BKS leaders said, “J.P. Nadda was making tall claims of the Prime Minister’s great contribution towards the farmers, but didn’t meet us when we were agitating for 27 days with 26 demands in Gandhinagar.”
The press release added, “This is the last warning to the government to stop misleading the farmers and resolve our key issues. If they still don’t move, it will be at a heavy cost and the government will be responsible for the consequences.”
Gujarat also saw an unusual agitation by lower police staff and para-police staff like the Lok Rakshak Dal (LRD) in the recent months, when their families came out on the streets with their years-old demand for revision of pay grades for them.
Being a disciplined state cadre, the policemen do not generally resort to agitational measures.
AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal took full advantage of this when he assured the police staff in Gujarat that they would be given salaries comparable to the best police force in India. The salutary effect of these words was such that many police constables put up pictures of Arvind Kejriwal as their WhatsApp display pictures.
This prompted the Bhupendra Patel government to immediately announce a Rs 550 crore package for them, though this was also taken with a pinch of salt given that this allocation was a stop-gap gesture and not a revision of their grade pay.
The Gujarat government had to recently withdraw a strong legislation to deal with the stray cattle, which was passed after an extensive debate until midnight on the last day of the Budget Session on March 31, 2022. A huge agitation by the cattle-breeders broke out after this law was passed, forcing the government to put it in abeyance. Still not satisfied, the maldharis (cattle breeders) threatened to boycott the BJP in the elections. This forced the government to withdraw the legislation in a special two-day monsoon session of the assembly on September 21.
Similarly, the government first put on hold the Par-Tapi-Narmada riverlink inter-state project with Maharashtra but an intense agitation by the tribal residents of south Gujarat made them scrap it. The project was announced with fanfare by Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her budget for 2022-23.
Darshan Desai is writer is founder-editor of Development News Network (DNN), Gujarat. His email is [email protected].