Dissent threatens BJP unity in Gujarat

With open rebellion in six seats forcing the party to change two candidates, is the BJP’s 29-year reign in Gujarat showing the first cracks?

Published : Apr 03, 2024 12:43 IST - 7 MINS READ

Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel at a press meet in Gandhinagar on December 08, 2022.

Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel at a press meet in Gandhinagar on December 08, 2022. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

Although it has not been widely reported on national television, an incident from Amreli in Gujarat has caught the attention of political observers: the workers of two BJP factions were engaged in heated arguments that reportedly led to a physical altercation. The party had nominated Bharat Sutariya as its Amreli Lok Sabha candidate, but the three-term MP, Naran Kachchadiya, was unhappy about Sutariya’s nomination, which led to fisticuffs between the supporters of both leaders.

While party workers being unhappy with the leadership’s decisions and quarrelling over small things is common to every political party in every election, the BJP has usually managed to quell such dissent. In Gujarat, especially, the State unit of the BJP has managed to achieve a situation where over the years the local leaders have accepted all decisions of the central leadership quietly. Now, for the first time in almost 29 years, the local leaders are openly revolting and expressing their dissatisfaction with the central command’s candidates.

Given the strength of the BJP unit in Gujarat and the fact that both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah hail from this State, this development is relatively minor and will likely have no significant impact on the outcome of the election. However, the suggestion of potential divisions or cracks within the saffron party in its stronghold state is an interesting development worth noting.

Revolt and change

This is particularly so because Amreli is not a one-off incident. Rifts have broken out in the party ranks in six Lok Sabha seats. The BJP had declared Ranjan Bhatt, a two-term MP, as its Vadodara candidate for this election, but the local leadership opposed the nomination. Party workers from the Vadodara seat were seen publicly speaking against Bhatt. The BJP was subsequently forced to drop Bhatt and declare the candidature of Hemang Joshi. It is important to note that PM Modi had contested from Vadodara in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, winning the seat with a record margin of over five lakh votes. He resigned from the seat after he was also elected from his second seat in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. The BJP has won the Vadodara Lok Sabha seat since 1998. That the party leadership was forced to change its candidate for such a sure seat is a certain sign of brooding resentment among the cadre.

In Sabarkantha, the party gave the candidature to Bhikaji Thakor. But a controversy erupted over Thakor’s caste, with unknown people distributing pamphlets in the constituency questioning his caste identity, claiming that Thakor belongs to the OBC Kshatriya caste and not to the tribal community that he now claims. Once again, the BJP leadership had to change candidates, and has now given the ticket to Shobhna Baraiya, wife of an ex-MLA from the Congress, Mahendrasinh Baraiya. But there is resentment against Shobhna too. The BJP’s Himmatnagar taluka panchayat member Jitendrasinh Jhala has written a letter to the central party leadership to not give the ticket to Shobhna. “She is not a member of the party. The party should give the ticket to a woman who has worked in its woman wing,” Jhala said in his letter. Shobhna dismissed the criticism and said, “I am getting the support of the public and I am part of PM Modi’s ideology.”

On the Surendranagar seat, BJP workers are protesting against Chandu Silhora being given the ticket. The party had dropped its two-term MLA Mahendra Munjapara and given the ticket to Silhora, a former Congress worker who belongs to the Chunvalia Koli sub-caste. The BJP workers of the Talpada Koli sub-caste are, therefore, protesting against Silhora’s selection. Soma Patrel, a former MP from the Congress who is now with the BJP, has said that if the party continues to back Silhora, he will work against the BJP in the election.

A similar story is being repeated in other constituencies such as Rajkot, Valsad, and Junagadh. In Rajkot, Purushottam Rupala invited trouble when a video went viral showing the Union Minister for Fisheries, Animal Husbandry, and Dairy allegedly disrespecting the Kshatriya community. In the video, he is heard saying that erstwhile kings (Kshatriyas) had succumbed to foreign rulers like the British and married their daughters to them. This has irked Gujarat’s Kshatriya community and it has demanded the withdrawal of the ticket given to Rupala. Although Rupala has apologised twice for his remarks, Karni Sena, a Kshatriya outfit, has refused to accept the apology. “We will not call off the protest until Rupala is removed from the candidate list,” Karni Sena said in a statement. Besides this, P.T. Jadeja, the international president of Rajput Yuva Sangh, has told the media that only the withdrawal of Rupala as a candidate would pacify the community. Chief Election Officer P. Bharti has sought a report from the Rajkot District Collector on Rupala’s speech.

In Valsad, the BJP candidate is facing strong resentment from party workers. Valsad is a reserved seat for Scheduled Tribes and the party fielded Dhaval Patel, but an anonymous letter surfaced on social media opposing the nomination. The BJP has tried to blame it on the Congress, but it is no secret that the party’s leadership is busy pacifying workers in Valsad.

Cracks in the bastion?

These pockets of revolt are happening in a State where the BJP has been in power since 1995. In 2014 and 2019, the BJP won all 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat. In the 2022 Assembly elections, the BJP’s win broke all previous records; 156 of the 182 seats. The Congress was a distant second with 17 seats and the Aam Aadmi Party won five. Moreover, a few MLAs and prominent faces from both the Congress and AAP had joined the BJP. In such an opposition-mukt State, the fact that the party is facing dissatisfaction in half a dozen constituencies is ringing alarm bells for the central leadership.

A senior journalist from Ahmedabad, Deepal Trivedi, sees this development as a churning within the party. “This rebellion is important because it signifies that the perception of BJP being cadre-based party is now eroding in Gujrat,” said Trivedi, adding that this is the State which created a benchmark for the party and its cadre all over India about how the electoral machinery should be. “Now, interestingly, despite the fact that the BJP bagged a record number of 156 of the 182 seats in the Assembly in 2022 December: things are not as smooth as the BJP had presumed, in Gujarat.” She further said, “This doesn’t mean the popularity of BJP is going down and they may face some major electoral upsets. But it is also true that BJP has reached its peak now and there is no space in Gujrat to move further. This time, BJP has kept an ambitious aim to win every seat in Gujarat with five lakhs plus margin. This might not happen.” 

The Gujarat Congress spokesperson, Manish Doshi, has taken potshots at the BJP over the rumbles. “The discontent has become obvious in some seats. The BJP is disrespecting its cadre. We will see the impact of this in the results,” he said. Yagnesh Dave, the coordinator of the BJP’s media cell in Ahmedabad, has said that things will settle down. “Every leader has some followers. But the BJP is a disciplined party. It listens to the cadre well, and party workers respect the leadership. We are sure the party will repeat its record this time like in 2014 and 2019,” he said.

Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel, the State BJP chief C.R. Patil, and State Home Minister Harsha Sanghavi have held many meetings with party leaders and workers on all the troubled seats, but they have failed to reach a conclusion. Gujarat goes to polls on May 7 in a single phase. To pacify the disgruntled workers and local leaders, Modi and Shah will meet them this week in Delhi. Everyone in Ahmedabad believes that after Modi’s intervention, things will settle down. But it is also true that with the BJP campaigning on the “400 paar” (over 400 seats) slogan, facing troubles over seats on its home turf suggests the situation might not be as rosy as it would like people to believe.

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