Missing model

Print edition : May 10, 2019

The parched bed of Chandola Lake in Ahmedabad on March 22. Several areas of Gujarat are reeling under water scarcity, which will be a key issue in the Lok Sabha election. Photo: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

At a power loom factory in Surat. Photo: THE HINDU

OBC leader Alpesh Thakor addressing a rally on the Sanand highway demanding that local youths be given 85 per cent of the jobs in Gujarat’s industries, on February 23, 2017. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Koli leader Kunvarji Bavaliya (second from left) joins the BJP in the presence of Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel (left) and other party leaders, after resigning from the Congress, in Ahmedabad on July 3, 2018. Photo: PTI

Alpesh Thakor, who resigned from the Congress on April 10. Photo: PTI

Patidar leader Hardik Patel at a rally in Bhavnagar district on April 15. Photo: PTI

Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani, a file picture. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Widespread disenchantment with the BJP over issues such as unemployment and agrarian distress makes it tough for the party to repeat its clean sweep of 2014.

Gujarat has historically been a two-party State where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have gone head to head in electoral battles. In 1995, the BJP wrested power from the Congress, which had held sway for decades. The BJP has since won successive Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the State with massive margins. The BJP’s iron grip loosened slightly in the 2017 Assembly elections when it won only 99 out of 182 seats compared with its tally of 115 in 2012.

Political observers in Gujarat said that if the 2017 Assembly election results were any indication, the BJP may face a tough battle in the 2019 general election. It will certainly not be a repeat of the clean sweep of 2014, when it won all the 26 Lok Sabha seats. Gujarat is an important contributor to the BJP’s Lok Sabha seats tally, but this time the party is predicted to win not more than 16 seats. Achyut Yagnik, a political analyst, said: “Without effort the Congress will get 10-12 seats. This is not because the Congress is a better alternative or has done something substantive. It is the lack of delivery by the BJP in certain areas which has caused widespread discontentment.”

Neither party appears to have a game plan. The BJP is using political manoeuvres such as poaching strong Congress candidates to ensure seats. The Congress, on the other hand, is banking on the anti-incumbency factor and has done little to capitalise on its growth in 2017, when it improved its tally to 77 from 61 in 2012. The only sign of its earnestness was that after a gap of 60 years, the Congress held its Working Committee meeting in Ahmedabad this year. This high-level gathering was seen as a sign that the party plans to resurrect itself in the State. If the Congress is able to get its act together and leverage the resentment against the BJP, it may pull off a victory not seen in three decades, according to observers. It is a single-day polling in Gujarat during the third phase (on April 23). Speaking to a cross section of people in the State, this writer found that the enthusiastic support and hope that people had for the BJP in 2014 was completely missing now. The general perception is that the fight will revolve around what Narendra Modi has done for them as Prime Minister in issues such as reservation for the Patidar (Patel) and the economic and agrarian distress. The caste angle is always present and communities tend to vote en bloc in the State. Therefore, the 50 per cent plus Other Backward Classes (OBC) vote is critical for parties.

Those who live in urban areas still believe in the BJP and seem keen to bring back a Gujarati as Prime Minister. But the rural belt, barring the areas in and around Ahmedabad, is dismissive of the Modi hype. Having struggled with years of drought and having received few relief measures, there is palpable anger against the Modi regime. The diamond cutting and textile hub of Surat and the small/medium scale sector in the State, which were subjected to a double whammy of demonetisation and goods and services tax (GST), are still upset with the Central government.

Game plan or lack of it

Since the Modi wave is missing in this election, the BJP in Gujarat has had to work hard at its campaign. With the development plank failing, the party has resorted to its tried-and-tested formula of claiming to be the country’s watchdog on national security. Across Ahmedabad there are hoardings of Modi cautioning citizens on terror attacks and how the BJP will never allow the enemy in. Fortunately, the communal factor seems to have disappeared.

Part of the right-wing’s strategy ahead of the 2019 election was getting five Congress MLAs, including Kunvarji Bavaliya from the Koli community, to defect and join its ranks. Poaching Bavaliya was a masterstroke since the Kolis constitute 20 per cent of Gujarat’s population. He won the Jasdan byelection in December 2018 and was rewarded with a Cabinet berth in the State government. “Instead of focussing on key issues, the BJP is using its political prowess to win this election,” said Sagar Rabari, leader of the Khedut Ekta Manch, which has been working for adequate compensation for farmers affected by big industry/infrastructure projects. “They do not address key issues in Gujarat such as growing unemployment, drought, prices for farmers, education or health. We do not hear anything about the Gujarat model any more. I think they will win about 16-17 seats only because some candidates make the cut on the caste factor,” he added.

He further said: “It has been a cold election. Even Amit Shah’s rally was poorly attended. I was driving by and was shocked to see Shah address what could not be more than 1,000 people.” Shah has replaced senior party leader L.K. Advani from Gandhinagar, a BJP bastion. It is a safe seat for Shah. Saurashtra is one area where the BJP is on a sticky wicket. The region, which includes the constituencies of Amreli, Junagadh, Botad and Surendranagar, has witnessed severe water shortage and agrarian distress. It also has a large Patel population, which has turned against the BJP. For a change, the Congress is cashing in on its 2017 victory in this region and has fielded candidates who have a good chance of winning. “Modi is campaigning for four days in Saurashtra. This indicates their panic and the need to put in more effort in that region,” Yagnik said.

The Congress is also betting on Anand in central Gujarat. The BJP will suffer in parts of Banaskantha and Patan in northern Gujarat and will likely struggle in Kutch, which has traditionally been a safe seat for the party. This, again, is due to agrarian distress. The tribal belt has historically voted for the BJP. One in seven Gujaratis belongs to a tribe, so it is another massive vote bank, according to Yagnik.

If the BJP lacks a game plan, the Congress does not seem to be any better. The only sensible thing it has done is appoint Paresh Dhanani as the Legislature Party leader. A young and dynamic Patidar from Saurashtra, he has been trying hard to mobilise the party in the State, according to Champalal Bothra, president of the Federation of Surat Textile Traders Association (FOSTTA) and a party worker.

“We have a very strong chance of winning a substantial number of seats but the party’s organisation skills are very weak. Our ground-level cadre is very poor and candidate selection has been a disaster. In this belt, 40 to 50 per cent of the textile workers lost their livelihood due to the impact of demonetisation and GST. People are angry and desperate for change. But the Congress has fielded a weak candidate,” he added.

Alpesh Thakor’s exit from the Congress on the eve of the election may affect the party’s prospects as he claims to bring with him the massive Thakore/OBC vote bank that constitutes more than 40 per cent of the population. However, many dismiss him as an opportunist who was rumoured to be in talks with the BJP much before his defection.

Thakor joined the Congress in October 2017 with the grand plan of defeating the BJP in this election. He won his Assembly seat but seems to have had higher ambitions. He told the media that he was repeatedly “humiliated” by the party and, therefore, decided to go back to “Independent” status.

Thakor, Jignesh Mewani and Hardik Patel were responsible for denting the BJP’s performance in the 2017 Assembly elections.

Hardik Patel has been disqualified by the Supreme Court from contesting elections owing to a legal case against him. Patel joined the Congress in March 2019 in the hope of taking on the BJP.

Although a big loss for the Congress, Patel will still campaign, and the party hopes that he will tilt the 15 per cent Patel vote in its favour.

Several BJP candidates are sitting Members of Parliament. Surat’s Darshana Jardosh, Kutch’s Vinod Chavda, Navsari’s C.R. Patil, Kheda’s Devusinh Chauhan and Vadodara’s Ranjanben Bhatt are expected to win again. Modi had contested and won by five lakh votes from Vadodara in 2014. It is a safe seat for the BJP. The Congress’ main candidates are Punjbhai Vansh from Junagadh, Bharatsinh Solanki from Anand and Ranjit Rathwa from Chhota Udaipur.

Farming and unemployment

In this election, the critical issues that seem to have emerged across the country are acute agrarian distress, price rise and unemployment. Although Modi claims that Gujarat is the model of success, like the rest of the country, this State is also a victim of all the above problems.

Jeenabhai Patel, an elderly farmer from Nishada village in Kheda district, said: “Instead of focussing so much on Pakistan, they should look at problems in the country. We do not care about some fictitious enemy. Give us better prices and look after your own.”

“Gujarat is suffering from water shortage due to drought. They have not diverted the Narmada waters to the canals. Instead, they are building big statues and big factories. How can we trust this party which does not see the farmer as important?” Jeenabhai added.

The Saurashtra region was badly affected by a recent drought and floods in 2016. Tobacco and groundnuts are the main cash crops of the region. “Last year, we had a glut in production and so the prices crashed. Even if the production is normal, the prices are not enough to cover loans and for the next crop,” said Ashish Narayan Patel from Amreli.

Water has been the biggest problem in the State, with trains carrying water going to Rajkot and Kutch, Ashish Narayan Patel added. “Here and there they have tried to help, but it is not their priority. Big industries such as petroleum, gas, pharma and automobiles get this government’s attention. Sadly, these type of factories are automated and do not provide enough employment.”

According to the National Sample Survey Office report on unemployment, Gujarat’s unemployment rate grew more than of all other States—from 0.5 per cent in 2011-12 to 4.8 per cent in 2017-18. A reason for the 2015 Patidar agitation was the high rate of unemployment among Gujarat’s youth. The perception is that the State has work due to industry. Yet, there are no jobs because these companies do not require manpower, said Darshan Barot, a 27-year-old engineer from Vataman in Kheda.

The ruling BJP has succeeded only in the areas of road connectivity and urban development. Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar are clean, efficient and safe cities. Vadodara, Surat and Rajkot are also under development. Most urban voters believe that the BJP has a plan and that it should be given a chance to keep working as only long-term planning will yield results.

Hitendra Waghela, a shopkeeper in Ahmedabad, said: “In five years they [the Centre] did more than the Congress did in 20. We have to give them time. Anyone who works for vikas [progress] will get my vote.”