Gujarat's battle lines

Print edition : December 08, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a roadshow in his home town of Vadnagar on October 8. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi at a roadshow in Banaskatha on November 12. Photo: PTI

The rally in Gandhinagar on October 23 where the OBC leader Alpesh Thakor joined the Congress in the presence of Rahul Gandhi. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP

The BJP juggernaut with its propaganda about the Gujarat model of development has been brought up short by new players in the State’s electoral battle in 2017.

Late in the evening on November 13, 2017, several senior political journalists of Ahmedabad received serial calls from some spokespersons and leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a peculiar request. All of them wanted the journalists to mention in their copy that the BJP had no role in circulating the alleged sex video CD featuring Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel. The request was totally at variance with the positions adopted by a large number of BJP and Sangh Parivar social media activists a few hours earlier. The CD had been uploaded that afternoon and had become viral on social media, with the Sangh Parivar “cyber warriors” spreading it vociferously with enough suggestions that they had successfully cornered the young Patidar leader, who was posing a serious challenge to the BJP in the State.

However, this sense of triumph did not last long. Within hours, it was evident that the “expose” did not have the desired political impact for the BJP and its associate organisations. On the contrary, PAAS supporters, especially the large number of youngsters in their ranks, appeared even more aggressive in their opposition to the BJP. The invasion of privacy appeared to make a greater impact on popular perception, rather than any message of loose morals. Sangh Parivar insiders admitted that they quickly realised not only that the video footage was not going to have the desired impact but also that it might boomerang on the BJP. Evidently, this understanding led to this peculiar serial requests to senior political journalists on the night of November 13.

Dirty tricks boomerang

A group of veteran Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activists from Maninagar, the Assembly constituency in Ahmedabad that Narendra Modi as Chief Minister represented from 2002 to 2014, told Frontline that the “Hardik Patel video” was the third specific instance of the BJP suffering reverses in the space of a few weeks.

Chief Minister Vijay Rupani was forced to backtrack on his allegations against senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel in the name of jehadi terrorist links. The Gujarat anti-terrorist squad arrested two alleged ISIS operatives from Surat on October 25, and it was found that one of them was working with Ankleshwar’s Sardar Patel Hospital in Bharuch. Rupani immediately launched a campaign saying that Ahmed Patel was a trustee of the hospital and hence should take responsibility for employing the ISIS operative. He also demanded Patel’s resignation as a member of the Rajya Sabha. The Congress leader countered this by producing an affidavit that clearly showed he had resigned his trusteeship way back in 2014. He then wrote to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh seeking an impartial and objective investigation and also asserting that criminal inquiries should be left to investigation agencies and should not become a plaything in the hands of politicians with vested interests and acting on electoral considerations. As in the “Hardik Patel sex CD episode”, public opinion soon swung in favour of Ahmed Patel, leaving the State BJP leadership in intense embarrassment.

On October 22, the BJP announced that a number of PAAS leaders were leaving the organisation because they were disillusioned with Hardik Patel’s leadership and upset with his overtures to the Congress. A prominent name highlighted by the BJP was that of north Gujarat PAAS convener Narendra Patel. While Narendra Patel did announce his resignation from the PAAS in the presence of State BJP president Jitu Vaghani, he retracted it within a few hours, alleging that the BJP leadership had offered him a bribe of Rs.1 crore to join the ruling party. He also displayed Rs.10 lakh at a press conference, stating that this was the advance handed over to him. Soon, another former PAAS member, Nikhil Savani, who joined the BJP in July, resigned from the ruling party and castigated its leadership, including Rupani, as opportunists who targeted political gains without being concerned about people’s welfare.

Sangh Parivar insiders said that the “Hardik Patel video” was meant to overcome the impact of these earlier reverses. There was little doubt among the public that the saffron party and its associates were behind the video. The impression was reinforced as a video of the man who claimed to have leaked the “CD”, seen in the company of BJP State general secretary and Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, started circulating soon after the Hardik Patel video was uploaded. “In any case,” said a veteran RSS activist from Maninagar, “even the top Sangh Parivar hierarchy knows that a dirty tricks department has flourished under Amit Shah and Modi in Gujarat BJP for many years, and they are known for similar exploits. The ouster of the dynamic Sangh Parivar activist Sanjay Joshi as a powerful presence in the BJP was managed in the early 2000s by circulating a CD that showed Joshi in a compromising position. Some Congress leaders were also targeted by the department in a similar fashion.” The veteran activist also pointed out that while such tactics worked in the past, it did not do so this time.

The reasons can be located in a number of factors, and this is acknowledged even within the BJP. To start with, the myth of the so-called Gujarat model of development, built up through the effective use of propaganda during Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister, has by now got exposed as a mechanism essentially benefiting a clutch of crony capitalists. A number of reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and agitations by Dalits, Patels, farmers and fishermen have contributed to the busting of the myth. Consequently, there is a new kind of caste orientation developing at the grass roots under the leadership of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. Adding to this social climate were the economic woes inflicted on the trading and farming communities by the new GST regime and the persistent ripple effects of demonetisation.

All this has brought about a marked shift from past elections, especially in terms of atmospherics. Across the State, more and more people from all walks of life are volubly criticising the track record of the BJP governments in the State and at the Centre. A group of farmers and agricultural labourers in Nandoli spoke to Frontline on the subject. Here is what they had to say: “Until 2012 Modi was saying that his Gujarat model of development was focussing more on building up infrastructure for the corporates because the Congress-led Union government did not allow him to advance development programmes for agriculture and rural Gujarat, especially in areas like health. Now, he holds the reins of power both here and in Delhi. But rural Gujarat remains where it is. He is all gas and no action. For decades he covered it up. His chelas [minions] are not able to live up to the standards of craftiness he has set and all the lies about good governance are coming apart.” The comments were spiced up with choice epithets directed at BJP leaders.

In urban centres, traders and salaried employees displayed the same intensity and vigour in criticising the leaders of the State and Union governments. The Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani couched his opinion in refined and theoretical terms, pointing out that every single aspect of the Gujarat model of governance had been exposed in the last one year, and especially during the run-up to the current elections, as manipulated and this was why the BJP leadership was repeatedly resorting to dirty tricks.

Since both Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani have no direct political stakes and Alpesh Thakor has formally joined the Congress, the political and electoral benefits of this cumulative impact is getting channelised towards the Congress. The seemingly sudden turnaround in the appeal and reach of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s campaign in Gujarat was a direct manifestation of this, as political observers and activists cutting across ideological divides have noted. The phenomenal response that his yatra from Patan to Mehsana evoked in the second week of November was specifically highlighted by observers and activists. BJP and Sangh Parivar activists admitted that the scale and emotional quotient of the popular response shook even Rupani’s constituency in Rajkot, at a distance of over 200 kilometres from Mehsana. The speculation within the Sangh Parivar is that the Chief Minister may shift to a safer urban constituency like Vadodara, marked by persisting effects of the communal polarisation cultivated and propagated by the Sangh Parivar from the early 2000s.

Amid all the reverses in terms of realpolitik and campaign initiatives, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar bank on the persisting effects of communal polarisation visible in many constituencies across the State to retain power.

The RSS activists from Maninagar summed up the election run-up thus: “Modi ji is planning to campaign more aggressively from early December. This will further crystallise the social equations in our favour by the time polling takes place on December 9 and 14. So, in a nutshell, the net result thrown up by this election could be metaphorically described as one that had the BJP’s nose rubbed on the ground though it still managed to scrape through.” They said that the so-called new caste equations between Patels, the Koli OBC community, Dalits and Muslims would not work on the ground where these sections were in perpetual conflict socially.

Jayaraman Kadambaat, noted Malayalam writer and a resident observer of Gujarat politics for several decades, agrees. “Undoubtedly, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are facing their toughest challenge in 15 years, but beyond the optics it brings to the campaign, that may not be sufficient to topple the ruling party from power,” Jayaraman told Frontline.

There are several factors that uphold this point of view. The gap between the BJP and the Congress in Gujarat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was a whopping 26.66 percentage points. Propped by Modi’s candidature to the Prime Minister’s position and the boost it gave to “Gujarati Asmita” (Gujarati pride), the BJP mopped up 60.11 per cent of the votes polled compared with the Congress’ 33.45 per cent The losses that the BJP will likely suffer in the Assembly elections will average an estimated 10 percentage points. Given the current context in Gujarat, the losses may deepen but will still not be enough to unseat the BJP. It will, rather, lead to the continuation of the steady, yet marginal, drop in the BJP’s seat and vote share, which has been evident over the past decade in all but one election.

In 2002, the BJP won 127 of Gujarat’s 184 seats with a vote share of 49.85 per cent. This fell to 117 seats and a 49.12 per cent vote share in 2007; and 115 seats and a 48.30 per cent vote share in 2012. The corresponding figures for the Congress were 51 seats and a 39.59 per cent vote share in 2002; 59 seats and a 39.63 per cent vote share in 2007; and 61 seats and a 40.59 per cent vote share in 2012. This steady but slow drop in the BJP’s electoral fortunes in Gujarat was altered dramatically in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when the party’s vote share rose in leaps and bounds. The Congress suffered a loss of 6 to 7 percentage points.

The moot question now is whether the collective anti-BJP campaign of the Congress and the young community leaders, coupled with the new caste equations that have developed, will be good enough to overcome this drop and overtake the BJP. Jignesh Mevani is confident that this is going to happen. “The cumulative effect of the Modi regime at the Centre and the multiple Chief Minister regime in the State over the past three years has opened the eyes of the people to the sham that they have been running in the name of development. The Gujarat model has been exposed as a combination of everything bad in feudal socio-economic systems and a postmodern crony capital economy. Demonetisation and GST have broken the back of the people. Farmers, traders and Dalits and OBCs will make this a watershed election,” he told Frontline. He and the other young leaders, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor, apparently expect more than 70 per cent of the Patidar community, nearly 90 per cent of Dalits and 70 per cent of the OBC Kolis to vote against the BJP. Put together, these communities add up to over 35 per cent of the electorate. Muslims make up approximately 10 per cent.

All these communities have enough objective reasons to unseat the BJP. But it is doubtful whether subjective social conditions will allow them to do so. Evidently, this is a battle of not just political perceptions but also political arithmetic based on social equations and the societal emotions that have taken root around them for decades.

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