THE BATTLE COMES HOME
THE PARTY FACES CHALLENGES IN GUJARAT. BUT AFTER SOME REBUILDING BY CM RUPANI AND WITH THE MODI WAVE AT ITS PEAK, IT’S STILL ADVANTAGE BJP
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
IN THE LAST ASSEMBLY SESSION, CM RUPANI PUSHED THROUGH 26 LAWS IN ALMOST AS MANY DAYS TO BUILD AN IMAGE OF A ‘DECISIVE GOVERNMENT’
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