Gu­jarat is still a BJP citadel

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 vote­share 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. Does the Congress have it?

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 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 is sev­eral shades

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 mid­dle­class 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.

The full pic­ture

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