Gujarat is still a BJP citadel

Poornima Joshi | Updated on March 09, 2018

The full picture Does the Congress have it? Vijay Soneji

The Congress will need more than caste jugaad and angst over demonetisation and GST, to challenge Modi in his fortress

Last week, a senior BJP leader mocked at a question I asked about the Patidars’ angst and the crowds thronging at young Hardik Patel’s gatherings in poll-bound Gujarat. “The media has been discovering the Patels and their anger in every Assembly election since 2002. It disappears after the results,” he said, dismissing the jewel in the Congress’s crown of new caste configurations in the State won repeatedly by the BJP since 1998.

For a journalist, taking the BJP’s swagger at face value is fraught, aimed as it typically is at conveying easy confidence in itself and casual dismissal of the opponent. However, when it comes to Gujarat, it would be erroneous to interpret the swagger as mere posturing. And, as a recent trip to Gujarat revealed, it would be doubly fraught to swallow the hype around the Congress’s hopes in the two-phase Assembly elections scheduled on December 9 and 14.

Performance recap

It helps, at this stage, to get a perspective by recounting the respective party performances in recent years. Even if one discounts the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when the BJP won all 26 parliamentary seats and got a staggering over 60 per cent of the total votes as an exceptional case of an overwhelmed State pushing to install its preferred candidate — Narendra Modi — into the Prime Minister’s Office, there is no denying that the BJP has become the natural party of governance in the voters’ psyche over the last 19 years.

Take the unexceptional case of the 2012 elections. Between the BJP and the Congress, there was a vote-share difference of 7.71 per cent with the BJP scoring 48.30 per cent vote-share and winning 115 seats, and the Congress winning 40.59 per cent votes and 61 seats in the 182-member Assembly. To bridge this gap of about 8 per cent, the Congress this time is counting on the twin strategy of encashing on the anger among businessmen, shopkeepers and farmers over demonetisation and GST implementation, and a new caste calculus.

In the demand for reservation by Patels, who constitute about 15-16 per cent of the population, and a counter-mobilisation against this demand by a section of the OBCs led by Alpesh Thakore who has joined the Congress, and anger against Dalit oppression exemplified by the flogging of Scheduled Caste youth in Una, the Congress believes it has found a new lease of life. Loosely, the Congress’s caste calculations rest on adding disgruntled Patels and Banias/trading communities to its traditional support base among KHAM (Kshtriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims) who are more galvanised and will be more consolidated in their voting behaviour for various reasons. Besides aggressively wooing Hardik Patel, the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee chief Bharatsinh Solanki told me his party’s outreach to the Patidars is visible because it has “already promised reservation” to the community.

So, some percentage shift among Patels, OBCs, upper caste and trading communities, and consolidation of KHAM votes in the backdrop of a slowing economy, GST chaos and lingering effects of demonetisation have rekindled the Congress’s hopes in the BJP’s fortress.

A different picture

The reality is several shades different.

Anyone who has seen the mammoth size of Patidar rallies when former chief minister, Keshubhai Patel, arguably a more influential leader from the numerically stronger Leuva Patels than the newcomer Hardik Patel, rebelled against the BJP in 2012, would strike a note of caution before predicting a shift in the Patidar voting pattern. Keshubhai’s Gujarat Parivartan Party garnered just about 3.6 per cent of the vote in the last Assembly elections.

In the four Patel villages located in the Gandhinagar-Mehsana belt that I visited, there was anger at the BJP’s performance in the State after Modi’s election as Prime Minister. There was also curiosity and support for Hardik Patel. But among the 20-odd Patels I interviewed, not a single person said he would vote for the Congress this time. A few were undecided but the majority was unambiguously in favour of the BJP. And if there was one factor common to all, it was adoration for Modi who is reportedly planning to address close to 50 public rallies across Gujarat.

The sample size is arguably small and the Patels are largely believed to be more upset in Saurashtra and the Surat belt. But there is also a historical context of voter behaviour in terms of caste in Gujarat. KHAM, which is the backbone of the Congress support to date, is the antithesis of the upper and middle-class Hindus, especially Patels, whom the party is wooing currently. Dalits and Muslims were the obvious target of the anti-KHAM agitation in the 1980s after the Congress’s promise of reservation to these communities. Bharatsinh Solanki, who now says that he has promised reservation, is the symbol of Kshatriya domination of the Congress support base in Gujarat. And if Patels are to be given reservation, how is the Congress going to reconcile the vote base of Alpesh Thakore who led a counter-mobilisation against the Patel demand for quota and is now the emerging face of the Congress’s Kashtriya domination?

Telling story

The story of Tejashree Patel, a gynaecologist who won the Viramgam seat in 2012 by a margin of over 15,000 votes, exemplifies the caste affiliations of the contesting political parties. Tejashree recently resigned from the Congress and is an aspirant for the BJP ticket from Viramgam because she believes that between Bharatisinh Solanki and the rising star Alpesh Thakore, she does not have a future in the Congress. “They (Sinh and Thakore) have told Rahul Gandhi that Patels will not vote for the Congress. I have been consistently undermined in this party,” Patel said, sitting in her tiny clinic in Viramgam.

The Congress is thus busy in a caste jugaad, euphemistically called a rainbow coalition, against the ruling BJP and banks on 20-year anti-incumbency, no Modi as CM candidate, economic downturn and traders’ anger to break the Gujarat jinx. What is not visible here is a strong organisation like the BJP/RSS cadre base, a clear vision or a leader to match Modi’s appeal. How, for instance, is the Congress promising reservation to the Patels when it is constitutionally not possible and ethically not justifiable? Who will be the Congress’s chief ministerial candidate?

Challenging Modi in a State where BJP is entrenched and communal segregation complete is not going to be easy. Jugaad and anti-incumbency are simply not enough.

Published on October 30, 2017

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