THE THREE MAVERICKS

The Hardik Pa­tel, Alpesh Thakor and Jig­nesh Me­vani troika has added a dash of un­pre­dictabil­ity to the Gu­jarat assem­bly elec­tions

India Today - - INSIDE - BY UDAY MAHURKAR

Hardik Pa­tel, Alpesh Thakore and Jig­nesh Me­vani—can they end 22 years of BJP rule in Gu­jarat?

ON NOVEM­BER 18, THE AIR in Sarb­han vil­lage in Bharuch dis­trict was thick with an­tic­i­pa­tion. The day before, three ‘sex’ CDs al­legedly in­volv­ing Pati­dar Ana­mat An­dolan Samiti (PAAS) con­venor Hardik Pa­tel had sur­faced and were dis­cussed thread­bare on sev­eral TV chan­nels. A crowd of around 10,000 had gath­ered to hear Hardik speak. More than the speech, it would seem, peo­ple were ea­ger to see how the 24-year-old would re­act in his first pub­lic meet­ing since the CDs.

Hardik’s con­voy of SUVs kicked up dust as it ar­rived in the vil­lage. As he alighted, 10 Pa­tel girls wel­comed him, ap­ply­ing tilak on his fore­head, an in­di­ca­tion of what was to come. Hardik climbed on to the stage and pro­ceeded to tear into the BJP. “I have lived as many years as the BJP has been in power in Gu­jarat…. In­stead of mak­ing a sex CD of a 24-yearold, un­mar­ried boy, the BJP should make CDs to show peo­ple what it has done for Gu­jarat in these 22 years. Why farm­ers are in dis­tress in the state and why there is job­less­ness though it has ruled Gu­jarat for two decades,” he thun­dered, in chaste Gu­jarati. The crowd erupted. If the CDs were in­tended to paint Pa­tel as a sex fiend, they seemed to have had the op­po­site ef­fect; he’s very much a lo­cal hero.

At another road­side gath­er­ing, Hardik con­tin­ues in the same vein. There’s no trace of un­ease in his voice, no hint of em­bar­rass­ment over the ‘scan­dal’. “The time has come to de­feat the tanashahi (im­pe­ri­ous­ness) of the BJP,” he tells his au­di­ence. “Us­ing unethical means and mis­us­ing power to de­feat po­lit­i­cal ri­vals re­flect its ar­ro­gance. The more it re­sorts to unethical means, the more the peo­ple will re­act against it.”

Four days later, in what is eas­ily the most sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal re­align­ment of the state elec­tions due on De­cem­ber 9 and 14, Hardik an­nounced his tie-up with the Congress. His de­ci­sion was made easy by the fact that the party ac­ceded to his key de­mands, in­clud­ing reser­va­tions for Pa­tels, set­ting up a com­mis­sion to probe the atroc­i­ties on Pa­tels post the Au­gust 25, 2015 rally in Ahmed­abad.

How a 24-year-old, not even old enough to contest an assem­bly seat, has be­come the BJP’s big­gest elec­toral headache is cer­tainly the big­gest story of the Gu­jarat elec­tions. But it is not the only one. Two other sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal chal­lengers have en­sured that, for the BJP at least, trou­ble comes in threes. The trio has teamed up with the Congress en­sur­ing a straight fight against the BJP. Alpesh Thakor, 40,

a leader from the OBC Ksha­triya-Thakor com­mu­nity who joined the Congress in Oc­to­ber, is con­test­ing from Rad­han­pur in Patan dis­trict. Jig­nesh Me­vani, 36, a Dalit leader from Una, is con­test­ing as an in­de­pen­dent from Vadgam, un­op­posed by the Congress. Thakor and Me­vani may lack the charisma of Hardik or his pull among the Pa­tels, but are sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal in­flu­encers within their com­mu­ni­ties.

The troika comes as a shot in the arm for the Congress and there’s one big rea­son why this new front could make things very dif­fi­cult for the BJP. In the last assem­bly elec­tions in 2012, the dif­fer­ence in vote shares be­tween the BJP and Congress was just over 10 per cent. The BJP se­cured 48 per cent of the votes and the Congress, around 38 per cent. The BJP’s 115-seat vic­tory was a close contest in sev­eral con­stituen­cies, which it won by mar­gins of just 5,000 or less votes. It came af­ter tire­less cam­paign­ing by the then chief min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and the win cleared the path for his rise to the na­tional cen­trestage—he was anointed the BJP’s PM can­di­date just nine months af­ter the vic­tory. Another worry for the BJP—de­spite five con­sec­u­tive de­feats in the assem­bly elec­tions, the Congress has proved to be a tena­cious op­po­nent. Its vote share dipped below 30 per cent only once, in 1990 when the BJP and Janata Dal teamed up. Af­ter Modi came to power, the Congress’s vote share has never sunk below 34 per cent.

The Congress’s es­tab­lished voter base in­cludes over 22 per cent OBC Ksha­triya-Thakors in north and cen­tral Gu­jarat, and sig­nif­i­cant chunks of the state’s 15 per cent tribal elec­torate and 7.5 per cent of Dal­its. While Alpesh and Jig­nesh will help the party con­sol­i­date its tra­di­tional vote base, the al­liance with Hardik opens up the Pa­tel vote bank which makes up 14 per cent of the state’s elec­torate and which till now was a re­li­able as­set for the BJP.

The pre-elec­tion sen­ti­ment in Gu­jarat is clear. The BJP is in a weaker po­si­tion to­day than in any pre­vi­ous assem­bly poll. Not only is Congress vice-pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi mak­ing an im­pact, but the Congress’s axis with Hardik, Alpesh and Jig­nesh makes it a for­mi­da­ble ad­ver­sary. A six per cent vote swing could prove cat­a­strophic for the BJP.

THE RISE OF HARDIK PA­TEL

Wait­ing for him in the draw­ing room of his tem­po­rary home in a friend’s apart­ment in Shi­laj, on the out­skirts of Ahmed­abad, Hardik’s col­leagues are busy pre­dict­ing the down­fall of the BJP. As Hardik emerges, in white shirt and jeans, they all spring to their feet. When he set­tles down on the black sofa, a jour­nal­ist in the crowd pops the in­evitable ques­tion: “How many seats will the BJP win?”

Un­like his col­leagues, Hardik is more cir­cum­spect. “Let’s wait for the bal­lot pa­pers to be opened. The elec­tions are just a few days away. What’s the hurry?”

Look­ing at his short, stocky frame, clad mostly in short sleeved shirts and jeans, it’s dif­fi­cult to be­lieve the 24-year-old has be­come the BJP’s big­gest night­mare. But Hardik dis­plays a po­lit­i­cal ma­tu­rity way be­yond his years, some­thing the BJP should fear even more

than Hardik’s hold on the Pa­tels. That, and his as­tute­ness and abil­ity to turn cri­sis into op­por­tu­nity. For in­stance, when the sex CDs sur­faced, in an in­ter­view to a news chan­nel, he called the BJP “sex CD ex­perts” and went on to de­liver an elo­quent re­buke. “That’s their main weapon when it comes to putting down ri­vals. They think if they can’t win in a straight contest they can win by in­tim­i­da­tion. These CDs are mor­phed, but even if they weren’t, does it jus­tify what the BJP did?” Sens­ing that they had lost the bat­tle, the BJP beat a hasty re­treat, dis­tanc­ing it­self from the CDs af­ter an ini­tial at­tempt to ex­ploit the footage to pull down Hardik.

Hardik has cap­i­talised on the BJP’s ploy of stron­garm­ing its ri­vals. He is im­per­vi­ous to los­ing close aides—nine of PAAS’s 18 core com­mit­tee mem­bers have turned against him and joined hands with the BJP, some af­ter Hardik joined the Congress—ev­i­dently be­cause he is con­fi­dent of his crowd-pulling abil­i­ties. At a time when other lead­ers need to have crowds ‘or­gan­ised’ for their pub­lic meet­ings, Hardik’s pub­lic ral­lies draw crowds of any­where be­tween 10,000 and 40,000 in big meet­ings and 5-10,000 in small vil­lage meet­ings. His anti-BJP rhetoric has struck a chord among Pa­tels, par­tic­u­larly the youth in the com­mu­nity. The core of his ap­peal is emo­tional—re­venge for the death of the 14 Pa­tels killed in po­lice fir­ing dur­ing the 2015 pro-reser­va­tion ag­i­ta­tion. And who bet­ter to avenge the Pa­tels than a leader jailed for 10 months and ban­ished from Gu­jarat on charges of wag­ing war against the na­tion?

“Don’t for­get the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted on Pa­tels by this govern­ment in 2015,” Hardik is wont to re­peat at each rally. “They killed 14 youths and didn’t spare even moth­ers and sis­ters while thrash­ing us. The time to take re­venge on the BJP for those atroc­i­ties has come.”

Since Fe­bru­ary 2016, Hardik has ad­dressed 250 ral­lies, both big and small. There are farm­ers, youth and women in the gath­er­ing. But his core au­di­ence al­most al­ways com­prises Pa­tels. And that is what is giv­ing the BJP sleep­less nights. The com­mu­nity has formed the saf­fron party’s pri­mary vote bank since as far back as 1985 when

Congress leader Mad­havs­inh Solanki alien­ated them with his anti-Pa­tel and pro-back­ward KHAM (Ksha­triya, Har­i­jan, Adi­vasi and Mus­lim) strat­egy. Pa­tels form less than 14 per cent of Gu­jarat’s pop­u­la­tion but are a po­lit­i­cal force that de­fies their mod­est num­bers be­cause they have a ten­dency to vote en bloc when they feel strongly about an is­sue.

And Pa­tel votes mat­ter sub­stan­tially in nearly 70 of Gu­jarat’s 182 assem­bly seats and per­haps less sig­nif­i­cantly in two dozen seats. Wor­ry­ingly for the BJP, poll­sters are say­ing that OBC Ksha­triyas, tra­di­tional ri­vals of the Pa­tels, are not turn­ing to­wards the BJP in the num­bers it ex­pected them to. San­jiv Ku­mar, an in­de­pen­dent psephol­o­gist, who has con­ducted two sur­veys on Gu­jarat, one in Au­gust and another in Oc­to­ber 2017, says the BJP’s vote per­cent­age lead over the Congress has reg­is­tered a pre­cip­i­tous fall from 30 per cent to six per cent in three months.

Hardik’s bat­tle for reser­va­tion be­gan when his sis­ter Mon­ica was de­nied a schol­ar­ship in Ahmed­abad in 2015 which a friend of hers with lower marks man­aged un­der the OBC quota. But that was merely a trig­ger. The com­merce grad­u­ate from Ahmed­abad’s Sa­ha­janand Col­lege had been fight­ing for reser­va­tions since 2014 when he was leader of the Sar­dar Pa­tel Group, an old com­mu­nity NGO looked af­ter by Pa­tel big­wigs and a watch­dog of the com­mu­nity’s in­ter­ests. A skil­ful or­a­tor since his school­days, Pa­tel only honed his skills while he was in col­lege and is now putting them to good use.

Hardik comes from a small, tightly-knit fam­ily who live in a mod­est 80-yard house in Vi­ramgam town, 50 km north­east of Ahmed­abad, their

More than his in­flu­ence over the Pa­tels, the BJP’s wor­ried about Hardik’s abil­ity to turn cri­sis into op­por­tu­nity

mid­dle-class lives un­touched by their son’s new-found fame. Both his par­ents have stud­ied only up to Class 8; Hardik’s father Bharatb­hai is a small busi­ness­man deal­ing in sub­mersible pumps while his mother Ushaben is a home­maker. Sis­ter Mon­ica is now pur­su­ing a law de­gree af­ter her MA. The liv­ing room is fes­tooned with pho­to­graphs of him with var­i­ous lead­ers, among them Bi­har chief min­is­ter Ni­tish Ku­mar and for­mer Ut­tarak­hand CM Har­ish Rawat, as well as scores of for­get­table me­men­toes handed to him in func­tions across the state and coun­try. There is also a large frame with his photo in­scribed with the words ‘Amaro Sar­dar, Jay Sar­dar’ or ‘Our Sar­dar, Jai Sar­dar’, com­par­ing him to Sar­dar Pa­tel. His father Bharatb­hai is clearly em­bar­rassed. “It’s the work of some ov­er­en­thu­si­as­tic ad­mirer,” he says. “But he is cer­tainly a born leader. He al­ways wants to lead and never likes to be No. 2. He has strong re­solve and noth­ing can make him wa­ver once he sets his mind to any task.” Mother Ushaben chips in: “When he was in jail, he was of­fered a huge sum by the BJP to join the party’s Yuva Mor­cha.” The BJP de­nies the charge.

Po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion is cer­tainly what drives Hardik. He broke away from the pro-Pa­tel SPG to form PAAS before hold­ing his first rally seek­ing reser­va­tion for Pa­tels in July 2015 in Vis­na­gar in north Gu­jarat, where his sup­port­ers al­legedly beat up the lo­cal Pa­tel MLA. A month later, on Au­gust 25, he ad­dressed a mas­sive Pa­tel rally for reser­va­tion at Ahmed­abad, ask­ing then CM Anandiben Pa­tel to come to the venue and take a rep­re­sen­ta­tion from him. A sav­age po­lice lath­icharge on PAAS work­ers and their cars by 4,000 po­lice­men sent the Pa­tels across large parts of Gu­jarat on a ram­page, at­tack­ing po­lice sta­tions and up­root­ing rail­way lines. This pro­voked fur­ther po­lice re­tal­i­a­tion re­sult­ing in the death of 14 Pa­tels and one po­lice­man be­sides in­juries to sev­eral po­lice­men.

Hardik has seized upon pop­u­lar re­sent­ment over the BJP’s per­ceived fail­ures in both Gand­hi­na­gar and Delhi. He talks of un­em­ploy­ment ow­ing to the lop-sided im­ple­men­ta­tion of the GST and the state govern­ment’s fail­ures to grant farm­ers ad­e­quate sup­port price for ground­nut and cot­ton. He ef­fort­lessly switches be­tween lo­cal di­alects as he criss­crosses the state—in Saurash­tra, he speaks Kathi­awari and in north Gu­jarat the coarse lan­guage na­tive to the re­gion. It helps that Hardik be­longs to Vi­ramgam, a re­gion nestling be­tween north Gu­jarat and Saurash­tra (Kathi­awad).

At a rally in Morvi on Oc­to­ber 31, he turned up an hourand-a-half late. The crowds, many of whom had been around for four hours, stayed put to hear him. “Make those peo­ple MLAs who know the price of ‘Favdo, Trikam and Ta­garo’ (agro equip­ment used by every farmer). This is just a govern­ment of an­nounce­ments.” At another rally, he urges crowds to dis­pas­sion­ately vote against the BJP. “Even if my father Bharat Pa­tel or mother Ur­mi­l­aben con­tests on a BJP ticket, your only re­sponse should be to de­feat them”. “The BJP is so op­por­tunis­tic,” he tells crowds at Mansa where 30,000 peo­ple have gath­ered to hear him, “that if Da­wood joins their party, they will say the 1993 blast vic­tims died of Chikun­gunya.”

“Hardik has an elec­tric con­nect with the crowds,” says PAAS’s Morvi con­venor Manoj Pa­nara. “Any­one who comes to his pub­lic meet­ing, can’t leave till his speech ends.” Se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Ajay Umat, who be­lieves the BJP has an edge in the elec­tion thanks to the Congress’s lop­sided ticket dis­tri­bu­tion and PM Modi’s charisma, still cred­its Hardik for be­ing “the BJP’s tor­men­tor-in-chief” and says the id­iom he is us­ing is in­fec­tious.

The Hardik Pa­tel ma­chin­ery is run by a nine-mem­ber core team of PAAS that in­cludes se­nior lead­ers like Di­nesh Bhamb­haniya and Manoj Pa­nara. They con­trol the dis­trict and tehsil teams of con­venors and co-con­venors spread across 27 dis­tricts and 200 Pa­tel-dom­i­nated tehsils in Gu­jarat.

Hardik doesn’t own a car but drives in his sup­port­ers’ SUVs. His move­ment is funded by well-off Pati­dars. At his friend’s house in Ahmed­abad where he is stay­ing, his mother

cooks food for at least 10 of his sup­port­ers every day.

A se­ries of strate­gic mis­takes by the BJP have fu­elled the rise of Hardik and turned him into a hero within his com­mu­nity. For one, it did not pun­ish the po­lice­men who tar­geted the Pa­tels in 2015. In­stead, it slapped sedi­tion charges on Hardik think­ing he would break. But months of jail and ban­ish­ment failed to crush his spirit. Then the BJP tried to slap po­lice charges on him, leaked footage of his meet­ings with Rahul Gandhi, tried to buy out his col­leagues like Varun Pa­tel and Reshma Pa­tel and then, fi­nally, tried to take ad­van­tage of the sex CD, which Hardik al­leges they them­selves made. How­ever, all this has only served to strengthen the halo around him and ce­ment the lore of a 24-year-old David tak­ing on the mighty Go­liath.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, while seek­ing reser­va­tion for Pa­tels un­der the OBC quota, Hardik has very care­fully re­frained from hurt­ing the sen­ti­ments of other com­mu­ni­ties. Af­ter the tieup with the Congress, other com­mu­ni­ties too have started flock­ing to his pub­lic meet­ings.

The tie-up with the Congress came af­ter a Kapil Sibal­bro­kered for­mula that would give Pa­tels reser­va­tion af­ter a proper sur­vey of Eco­nom­i­cally Back­ward Classes (EBCs). Many po­lit­i­cal ob­servers thought the Pa­tels would turn against Hardik af­ter this al­liance was ce­mented. But that hasn’t hap­pened so far, thanks to Hardik’s in­tel­li­gent elec­toral po­si­tion­ing.

While he talks about pun­ish­ing the BJP for the wrongs it com­mit­ted against the Pa­tels in the 2015 ag­i­ta­tion, he is care­ful not to praise the Congress. Congress MLAs do not share the stage with him at PAAS pub­lic meet­ings even though their ar­rival is an­nounced on the speaker. He has been flex­i­ble in his talks with the Congress on tick­ets to Pa­tels. Only one PAAS mem­ber got a ticket while three Congress Pa­tel can­di­dates of PAAS’s choice got tick­ets. PAAS leader Pa­nara ex­plains: “Our aim is not tick­ets but change of govern­ment in Gand­hi­na­gar and the re­al­i­sa­tion of our dream of reser­va­tions for Pa­tels.” How will PAAS tackle Amit Shah’s Chanakya niti? “Chanakya niti is no match for the kotha suz (com­mon sense) of the Pa­tel,” says Pa­nara.

Mean­while, the rul­ing party is not de­void of Pa­tel lead­ers of its own. Deputy Chief Min­is­ter Nitin Pa­tel warns that the Pa­tel move­ment could un­ravel be­cause reser­va­tions for Pa­tels are a no-go. “Hardik is only driven by ha­tred for the BJP and dreams of be­com­ing a po­lit­i­cal leader overnight,” he says. “Both he and the Congress are fool­ing the Pa­tel com­mu­nity be­cause the Supreme Court is very clear that reser­va­tion in this coun­try can’t ex­ceed 49 per cent.”

CONGRESS’S OTHER ACES

But the BJP has two other young lead­ers to worry about in Alpesh, who for­mally en­tered the Congress in Oc­to­ber, and Jig­nesh. Alpesh cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of OBC Ksha­triyas in north and cen­tral Gu­jarat af­ter an anti-liquor drive to free his com­mu­nity from the in­flu­ence of in­tox­i­cants and forc­ing the BJP govern­ment to toughen pro­hi­bi­tion laws. While OBC Ksha­triyas have been a de­pend­able Congress vote bank, Alpesh’s Gu­jarat Ksha­triya-Thakor Sena, spread over 5,000 of Gu­jarat’s 18,000 vil­lages, has made him some­what of an icon among women in the OBC Ksha­triyadom­i­nated north and cen­tral Gu­jarat.

Ka­mal Mi­tra Chenoy, pro­fes­sor at the School of Com­par­a­tive Pol­i­tics at the Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity in Delhi, at­tributes the rise of the trio to the vacuum cre­ated by Modi’s ab­sence in Gu­jarat. “When Modi was in Gu­jarat, peo­ple were cowed down, in­clud­ing in the BJP. Ru­pani (the chief min­is­ter) can­not be a sub­sti­tute for Modi.”

Early this year, Alpesh so­licited his com­mu­nity’s opin­ion on whether or not he should join pol­i­tics and if so which party he should join. A vast num­ber of them be­ing Congress sup­port­ers, es­pe­cially in north and cen­tral Gu­jarat, the Thakors nat­u­rally ad­vised him to go with the party.

Ac­cord­ingly, Alpesh joined the Congress, with the promise: “We will work to­wards form­ing a pro-poor govern­ment with 125 seats.” Thakors com­prise 22 per cent of Gu­jarat’s pop­u­la­tion and Alpesh’s in­flu­ence re­port­edly ex­tends to a

sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of seats in north and cen­tral Gu­jarat.

Like­wise, the in­flu­ence of Jig­nesh, a lawyer and Dalit ac­tivist who rose to fame when he ag­i­tated for the op­pressed Dal­its fol­low­ing the in­fa­mous flog­ging of four Dalit youths in Una in Saurash­tra last year, ex­tends to spe­cific Dal­it­dom­i­nated ar­eas in north and cen­tral Gu­jarat as well as some parts of Saurash­tra.

How­ever, when the Congress fielded Alpesh’s name as its party can­di­date from Rad­han­pur in north Gu­jarat, par­ty­men from the town al­most re­volted against the lead­er­ship. Jig­nesh also faced op­po­si­tion from some Congress el­e­ments when the party de­clared it would sup­port his can­di­da­ture as an in­de­pen­dent from the Vadgam seat in north Gu­jarat.

So, it’s not all smooth sail­ing for the Congress yet. The party’s po­lit­i­cal for­tunes might seem brighter than they were three months back thanks to the sup­port of the three Young Turks, the new-found ap­peal of Rahul Gandhi and the ef­forts of party lead­ers Ashok Gehlot, Bharatsinh Solanki and Shak­tis­inh Go­hil along with their young team of ob­servers. But ticket dis­tri­bu­tion has led to tur­moil. The Congress saw re­bel­lion or se­ri­ous un­rest in more than two dozen seats. BJP chief Amit Shah, on the other hand, worked out a smart strat­egy to con­trol un­rest within his party. He em­ployed spe­cific party work­ers to cool down the rebels. Some in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts be­lieve that the Congress de­ci­sion to take the sup­port of the youth­ful tri­umvi­rate of Hardik, Alpesh and Jig­nesh might be­come a mill­stone around its neck. “The Congress has had to ac­com­mo­date their can­di­dates at the cost of their own par­ty­men. I think the BJP now has an edge over the Congress,” says vet­eran po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Devendra Pa­tel. There could be some truth in this, but no one knows for sure. Apart from the op­po­si­tion to Alpesh’s can­di­da­ture in Rad­han­pur, there was trou­ble in north Gu­jarat’s Bayad con­stituency. At Alpesh’s be­hest, the Congress gave a ticket to a can­di­date from the Ra­jput com­mu­nity which has just 3,000 votes in Bayad. The BJP gave a ticket to a can­di­date from the OBC Ksha­triya com­mu­nity which has 34,000 votes.

THE BJP FIGHT­BACK

On Novem­ber 27, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi reen­tered Gu­jarat af­ter a 35-day-long gap, ad­dress­ing four ral­lies in Kutch, Saurash­tra and Su­rat. Like a pinch-hit­ter back from a break, he stepped out of the crease, tear­ing into the Congress with his one-lin­ers. “I will sell tea but not our na­tion,” he thun­dered at a rally in Saurash­tra. Ac­cus­ing the Congress of play­ing di­vi­sive caste pol­i­tics for votes and ques­tion­ing it on many is­sues, he said the dy­nas­tic Congress had nei­ther “niti (pol­icy), niyat (good in­ten­tion) nor neta (leader)”. He de­fended GST and said the govern­ment was open to mak­ing amends and was car­ry­ing out changes to make it peo­ple-friendly.

The month-long Modi break was part of the BJP’s de­lib­er­ate strat­egy to rest its star cam­paigner un­til just a month before the elec­tions. Modi’s ar­rival en­thused the BJP shaken by the com­bined at­tack of the Congress and its young troika.

Mean­while, as many as 40 cen­tral and state min­is­ters have been de­ployed in the state to en­sure the vic­tory of the party. The BJP’s posh party head­quar­ters, Ka­malam, and its swank me­dia cen­tre (started last month), is buzzing with cen­tral min­is­ters, MPs and of­fice-bear­ers from across the coun­try drop­ping in.

Gu­jarat is with­out doubt a pres­tige fight for the BJP, one it can­not af­ford to lose. The party is tar­get­ing the Congress and Rahul Gandhi, most re­cently try­ing to make po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal from his visit to Som­nath tem­ple where his name ap­peared in the reg­is­ter for non-Hin­dus. A tweet from the BJP’s all-In­dia so­cial me­dia con­venor Amit Malviya asked: “Is he hood­wink­ing the peo­ple by vis­it­ing tem­ples just for the sake of votes? Rahul Gandhi must come clean on this.”

The party, how­ever, is com­par­a­tively low-key in its crit­i­cism of the troika,

Sev­eral an­a­lysts think the tri­umvi­rate could well be­come a mill­stone around the Congress’s neck

in the hope that their sup­port to the Congress will bring out the con­tra­dic­tions within it. Mean­while, it has been first off the block in terms of ticket dis­tri­bu­tion, do­ing a faster and bet­ter job, be­sides pin­ning its hope on an as­cen­dant Modi.

The prime min­is­ter has re­port­edly pre­vailed upon BJP strate­gists, in­clud­ing Amit Shah, to project a softer im­age of the party before the peo­ple as he thinks that the de­fec­tion pol­i­tics and high­hand­ed­ness it has prac­tised against its ri­vals could cost them dear. Shah, mean­while, has asked cadre to con­cen­trate on booth­level con­tacts with the vot­ers and try and cre­ate a pro-BJP coali­tion of small OBC castes like the car­pen­ters, iron­smiths and others to counter the Congress on­slaught.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, caste has for the first time in many years played a key role in the se­lec­tion of can­di­dates, par­tic­u­larly within the BJP. And, not sur­pris­ingly, Pa­tels have been the gain­ers in ticket dis­tri­bu­tion in both the par­ties. The BJP has given them 53 seats and the Congress 47, the high­est by the party in many years. The BJP has re­peated 82 of its can­di­dates and the Congress 37. The BJP be­lieves it is win­ning 150 seats based on the leads it es­tab­lished in 165 assem­bly seg­ments in the 2014 Lok Sabha elec­tions in Gu­jarat when it won all 26 seats. How­ever, the ques­tion­able im­ple­men­ta­tion of the GST, the re­sul­tant job losses, how­ever tem­po­rary, has al­tered the sit­u­a­tion. Few in Gu­jarat be­lieve the BJP will get 150 seats, but Modi’s pres­ence has warmed the hearts of his par­ty­men. Modi’s clean, in­cor­rupt­ible im­age as prime min­is­ter is a huge plus and a tremen­dous symbol of Gu­jarati pride. It re­mains to be seen how the Congress tack­les Modi in this last round of cam­paign­ing.

And Modi is pulling out all the stops, in­clud­ing sub­tly hint­ing at the ben­e­fits of hav­ing the BJP in power in both Delhi and Gand­hi­na­gar. “The Congress-led govern­ment at the Cen­tre de­layed the Nar­mada project by 10 years by not al­low­ing it to reach its full height,” he told a rally in Saurash­tra in June this year. “But we gave the per­mis­sion as soon as we came to power. This is mak­ing all the dif­fer­ence to Saurash­tra when it comes to wa­ter.” The mes­sage is clear. Vote for the BJP and the ben­e­fits to Gu­jarat will con­tinue. But the im­pact on the elec­torate as yet is un­clear.

“The Congress will once again get a be­fit­ting re­ply from the peo­ple for the false­hoods it is spread­ing,” Chief Min­is­ter Vi­jay Ru­pani says. “Gu­jaratis know how their lives have changed dur­ing two decades of BJP rule. The time has come for putting the last nail in the Congress’s cof­fin.”

But the Congress is de­ter­mined to put up a good fight. It is re­flected in the con­fi­dence with which party leader Shak­tis­inh Go­hil says, “The change in power is writ­ten on the walls in Gu­jarat. Let the votes be counted on De­cem­ber 18…” It could well be the tagline for one of the most keen­ly­con­tested elec­tions in decades.

Pho­to­graphs by SHAILESH RAVAL

HARDIK PA­TEL rep­re­sents Pa­tels, who form 14% of the state pop­u­la­tion

Ar­eas of in­flu­ence

North Gu­jarat ex­cept parts of Banaskan­tha and the tribal parts of Sabarkan­tha Saurash­tra ex­cept Kutch, Por­ban­dar, parts of Ra­jkot city Cen­tral

Gu­jarat ex­cept Chotta Udepur, Da­hod and Godhra and Ahmed­abad and Vado­dara cities Parts of Su­rat city and parts of Bharuch dis­trict in South Gu­jarat

ALPESH THAKOR rep­re­sents OBC-Thakors (22%); run­ning from Rad­han­pur, Patan dis­trict Area of in­flu­ence North and C21en­tral Gu­jarat

JIG­NESH ME­VANI In­flu­en­tial among Dal­its (7.5%); run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent from Vadgam

Area of in­flu­ence Ahmed­abad (SC re­served seats: 13)

PTI

COM­MON TOUCH Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi cam­paign­ing in Bhuj

PTI

SEEK­ING THE LORD’S BLESS­ING

Rahul at the Som­nath tem­ple

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