India Today - - NATION - By Uday Mahurkar

Dur­ing Naren­dra Modi’s stew­ard­ship of Gu­jarat, the BJP main­tained an above av­er­age per­for­mance in the Lok Sabha polls, but af­ter he was de­clared the prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date in 2014, the BJP won all 26 seats from the state. Now with the prime min­is­ter’s pop­u­lar­ity at its zenith af­ter the party’s land­slide win in Ut­tar Pradesh, Modi’s and Chief Min­is­ter Vi­jay Rupani’s chal­lenge for the com­ing assem­bly elec­tions seems some­what lighter. The party had lost rural Gu­jarat to the Congress in the Novem­ber 2015 dis­trict and taluka pan­chayat polls, los­ing more than 70 per cent of the seats, but it did keep all the cor­po­ra­tions, a sure­fire sign that it held com­plete sway over the ur­ban masses.

So ob­sta­cles re­main. And a ma­jor one is pro-Pa­tel reser­va­tion leader Hardik Pa­tel, whose cam­paign against the BJP govern­ment was one of the main causes of the de­feat in 2015. Pa­tel’s in­flu­ence has since waned, es­pe­cially af­ter his hob­nob­bing with the likes of the Shiv Sena, but by how much is still a mat­ter of con­jec­ture. Pa­tel’s pop­u­lar­ity graph is im­por­tant for the BJP be­cause it is from this com­mu­nity that the party and the Sangh pari­var have de­rived their


strength all these years. The prime min­is­ter’s visit to Su­rat , Gu­jarat’s eco­nomic hub and a big Pa­tel strong­hold, to in­au­gu­rate projects mooted by mem­bers of the com­mu­nity (in­clud­ing a high-tech hospi­tal) and his 11-km-long road­show a day ear­lier, on April 17, demon­strated the im­por­tance the BJP at­taches to the Pa­tel vote. Pa­tels con­sti­tute around 12 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion in Gu­jarat but have been the back­bone of the BJP’s growth in Gu­jarat over the past three decades. “The BJP is us­ing Modi’s charisma to woo the Pa­tels, al­most pro­ject­ing him as a sec­ond Sar­dar Pa­tel,” says a party leader. “His cutouts in Su­rat, some over 25 feet high, are cer­tainly an in­di­ca­tion of this.”

And many Pa­tels are com­ing out of Hardik’s shadow and veer­ing back to the party. The first in­di­ca­tion of a BJP re­cov­ery came when it won the Talala assem­bly seat, held by the Congress for two terms, in a by­elec­tion last May and then won a ma­jor­ity of the 10,000 vil­lage (gram) pan­chay­ats that went to polls in Jan­uary 2017. Both the BJP and the Congress claimed vic­tory in the pan­chayat polls where can­di­dates con­tested in­di­vid­u­ally and not on party sym­bols. But a BJP-spon­sored meet of newly elected sarpanches saw a turnout of over 7,000, an in­di­ca­tor of who ac­tu­ally won.

What is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence is Rupani’s deft han­dling of the sit­u­a­tion. On the sur­face, the CM has ap­peared quiet but he has added to the party’s strengths with a mul­ti­pronged strat­egy. He has closed the gap be­tween the party and the govern­ment, im­proved the law and or­der sit­u­a­tion, tried to tackle grass­roots is­sues at the mi­cro level with his in­no­va­tive Seva Setu pro­gramme and ad­dressed the farmer’s prob­lems. What has helped most is that his govern­ment re­mains un­tainted by any scam so far, a big plus for the BJP on the eve of a cru­cial poll.

In the last assem­bly ses­sion, Rupani pushed through 26 laws in al­most as many days in a bid to ac­quire the im­age of a de­ci­sive govern­ment in keep­ing with his slo­gan: trans­par­ent, de­ci­sive, sen­si­tive and pro­gres­sive. Some of these laws prom­ise to have a strong po­lit­i­cal im­pact.

For ex­am­ple, a new law has put a cap on an­nual fees charged by pri­vate schools—Rs 15,000 for pri­mary, Rs 25,000 for sec­ondary and Rs 27,000 for higher sec­ondary. The law is strin­gent and in case of vi­o­la­tions at­tracts a puni­tive fine of Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh and even a ban of the school. The move is ex­pected to woo the mid­dle and lower mid­dle classes to which Rupani, a Jain by re­li­gion, him­self be­longs.

The law, which is in keep­ing with Modi’s own propoor stance at the Cen­tre, has had an im­pact across the na­tion, with many BJP-ruled states show­ing an in­ter­est in repli­cat­ing it. Even Union min­is­ter for hu­man re­sources devel­op­ment, Prakash Javadekar, has taken no­tice of it.

In another pro-poor move, CM Rupani has launched the Shramik An­na­purna Yo­jana, cov­er­ing 88 main thor­ough­fares across 10 ma­jor cities where ar­ti­sans and labour­ers of the con­struc­tion in­dus­try gather ev­ery day look­ing for work. They will be given a full lunch at Rs 10 per thali by the govern­ment. About 50,000 con­struc­tion in­dus­try work­ers are to ben­e­fit from the scheme and, of course, will strengthen the party’s pro-poor im­age.

Then, cater­ing to the Hin­dutva con­stituency, he has made the anti-cow slaugh­ter law more strin­gent with a leg­is­la­tion that slaps 10 years to life im­pris­on­ment on any­one con­victed of slaugh­ter­ing a cow or its prog­eny, along with a ban on trans­porta­tion of cows in Gu­jarat from dusk to dawn. Any vi­o­la­tion of the trans­porta­tion re­stric­tions in­vites se­vere pun­ish­ment to the vi­o­la­tor in­clud­ing con­fis­ca­tion of the ve­hi­cle in which the cow is be­ing trans­ported.

On the agri­cul­tural front, he has taken a se­ries of mea­sures to ad­dress the prob­lems of farm­ers. When ground­nut prices went down, the govern­ment in a cru­cial in­ter­ven­tion bought nuts worth around Rs 1,000 crore. Sim­i­larly, the state spent Rs 400 crore buy­ing pulses to prop up farm­ers. Rupani’s ef­forts to im­prove ir­ri­ga­tion in the state also prom­ises to ben­e­fit him. He has just cleared Rs 4,800 worth of ten­ders for ir­ri­ga­tion projects in tribal ar­eas which rep­re­sent 26 of the 182 seats in the state assem­bly. Al­though these schemes won’t fruc­tify be­fore the elec­tions, the de­ci­sion it­self should cre­ate a favourable at­mos­phere for the party in the tribal ar­eas.

In north Gu­jarat, he has done more, fill­ing up some 1,000 lakes with wa­ter from the Su­jalam-Su­falam ir­ri­ga­tion scheme where wa­ter is chan­nelled from the Mahi and Nar­mada rivers. In another im­por­tant step for the trib­als, he has given full rights to them on the sale of for­est pro­duce. They will now re­tain their en­tire earn­ings where ear­lier they had to share half the pro­ceeds with a state govern­ment body.

But what could be a trump card for the BJP is the ded­i­ca­tion by the prime min­is­ter (on April 17) of the sec­ond phase of the Rs 12,000 crore Nar­mada dam-based Sauni Yo­jana, the big­gest river-link­ing pro­ject in the coun­try so far. The projects aims to link the 115 rivers of Saurash­tra by 2019 and the ded­i­ca­tion

of its sec­ond phase will se­verely dent the cam­paign of Hardik Pa­tel (he had struck a chord with the Saurash­tra Pa­tels on the reser­va­tion is­sue) as the main ben­e­fi­cia­ries will be the Pa­tel farm­ers of the re­gion.

How­ever, Rupani has also in­dulged in some pop­ulist moves, though in his de­fence it could be said that he was un­der pres­sure from op­po­nents or even his peer group. For ex­am­ple, the drive against il­licit slaugh­ter­houses or the new law mak­ing Gu­jarat’s anti-liquor law more strin­gent with se­vere pun­ish­ments. These raise the spec­tre of se­ri­ously af­fect­ing busi­ness growth in the state.

The anti-liquor law has come af­ter pres­sure from OBC leader Alpesh Thakore, who has been lead­ing a cam­paign against liquor in the state, a move dic­tated by both so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. The leg­is­la­tion re­verses Modi’s own at­tempts to soften the law in 2008 with an eye to open­ing up busi­ness and tourism op­por­tu­ni­ties in Gu­jarat.

Gu­jarat BJP spokesper­son Bharat Pandya says, “We are work­ing to a plan. Af­ter our UP land­slide, the path is clear. What’s more, Rupani’s schemes are mak­ing an im­pact. We should win Gu­jarat hand­somely. The Congress will strug­gle, as al­ways.”

But the BJP can­not af­ford to be com­pla­cent. The Congress too sounds up­beat. As party spokesper­son Man­ish Doshi says, “There is more public­ity than meat in the BJP’s claims. You have to see the peo­ple’s in­volve­ment in our po­lit­i­cal pro­grammes to gauge the real sit­u­a­tion on the ground. And we just won all eight seats on the Gari­ad­har agri­cul­ture pro­duce mar­ket com­mit­tee in Bhav­na­gar dis­trict of Saurash­tra, in state BJP chief Jitu Vaghani’s own back­yard.”

In­deed, for a change, the Congress is work­ing in uni­son. All four top party lead­ers—state chief Bharat Solanki, Shankersinh Vaghela, Shak­tis­inh Go­hil and Sid­dharth Pa­tel seem to have rec­on­ciled their dif­fer­ences and are work­ing in close co­or­di­na­tion. The re­cent tribal Navsar­jan Adi­vasi Ad­hikar Yatra of the party to high­light tribal is­sues drew a good re­sponse. Plus, the party is try­ing to pro­vide ammo to Hardik in a bid to keep the BJP es­tranged from its main Pa­tel con­stituency in the state.

There’s also the fact that de­spite the BJP’s em­phatic vic­to­ries in three con­sec­u­tive state elec­tions un­der Modi’s lead­er­ship, the Congress vote­share never dropped be­low 30 per cent. But then the party has also not crossed the one-third mark in the last two polls in the 182-seat assem­bly. Af­ter the UP land­slide, it’s cer­tainly ad­van­tage BJP in Gu­jarat.


STREAM­LINED BJP chief Amit Shah with CM Rupani, right, in Ahmed­abad

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