Assembly elections: Gujarat

Shifting dynamics

Print edition : November 24, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration of Ghogha-Dahej Ro-Ro Ferry Service in Bhavnagar on October 22. Photo: PTI

Rahul Gandhi with OBC leader Alpesh Thakor at a rally in Gandhinagar on October 23. Photo: AJIT SOLANKI/AP

Hardik Patel with his supporters in Bhavnagar on October 28. Photo: PTI

The absence of Narendra Modi from the State’s politics has breathed some life into the Congress in Gujarat.

FIVE years ago, in 2012, the results of the Assembly elections in Gujarat were a foregone conclusion. It was known that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would win, and it did. The only opposition party of any worth was the Congress, and that had been in slumber mode for a long while and did not wake up even for the election. This time around, however, there is a difference. The Congress is not only wide awake but ready to do battle. And though it is unlikely that the Congress will oust the BJP, there is no doubt that the ruling party has a tougher fight ahead of it than it did last time.

One big reason for the change is that Narendra Modi is no longer in Gujarat. For the Congress, this is the removal of a big hurdle. For the BJP, it is a drawback. Modi, known to hold his cards close to his chest, dictated every move of the party when he was Chief Minister. His tendency to control everything meant that no future leader was ever groomed to take over in Gujarat. “Modi is Gujarat and Gujarat is Modi” was a slogan that was designed for his career path. This was most obvious when Modi moved to Delhi, leaving Anandi Patel and, later, Vijay Rupani to lead Gujarat. Both were, to use the late Bal Thackeray’s favourite phrase, remote-controlled Chief Ministers. The colourless leadership has meant that the BJP has to still rely on its poster boy Modi to rev things up.

The Gujarat elections will be held on December 9 and 14. Given the brief period ahead, the Congress should be in full campaign mode. But apart from Rahul Gandhi touring the State, the party has done little else. In fact, in August, the Congress lost one of its senior members when the maverick Shankersinh Vaghela left. He also took a few Congressmen with him. The political commentator Achyut Yagnik of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action in Ahmedabad, however, pointed out that “Vaghela’s area of influence is quite small and restricted to North Gujarat, so his leaving won’t make much difference”.

What will make some difference to the Congress is the Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader Alpesh Thakor, who joined the party recently. The 40-year-old leader is the convener of the OSS Ekta Manch (the OSS standing for OBCs, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes) and claims to have the support of 70 per cent of Gujarat’s electorate. The claim is exaggerated. The reality, said Yagnik, was that though OBCs in Gujarat form about 45 per cent of the population, “they are too diverse to come together”. It would work wonders for the Congress if they really did vote as one bloc, as Thakor’s claim suggests they will; but it is unlikely.

Yet, there is fresh blood infused in this election. Apart from Thakor, there are two young entrants in politics, Jignesh Mevani and Hardik Patel, and both are supporting the Congress.

Jignesh Mevani, 36, is a Dalit leader who dreams of a Dalit-Muslim combine. But with Dalits forming about 7 per cent of the State’s population and Muslims about 10 per cent, the combine is unlikely to be the power that Mewani hopes it will. Besides, Yagnik feels that the trading communities among Muslims—the Memons, Khojas and Bohris—may vote for the BJP.

Hardik Patel, the 24-year-old Patidar leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), shot to fame saying Patels were being bypassed in Gujarat’s development. He carries a large number of young people with him, though his strength has diminished since his arrival on the public platform in 2015. Infighting has diluted the cause and political aspirations have taken over. Two of his key PAAS aides have joined the BJP.

Hardik Patel also has to contend with the divisiveness of sub-castes. Among the Leva Patels and the Kadva Patels—both sub-groups of the Patidar clan—the Levas are numerically stronger and thus more influential, especially in Saurashtra. Hardik Patel is a Kadva. Their stronghold is northern Gujarat, which accounts for fewer seats. The Patidars as a whole form about 15 per cent of Gujarat’s population, a considerable figure when it comes to votes. Add to this the fact that they vote almost as a group and it is understandable why politicians have always wooed them.

Historical irony

Yagnik explains a historical irony in Patidar voting trends. Congressman Madhavsinh Solanki, a Kshatriya and a four-time Chief Minister, was the architect of the KHAM formula—the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim combine, which was the powerhouse behind the Congress. The Patidars saw themselves as being left out of the KHAM formula and were against reservation. This resulted in the Patidars beginning their shift away from the Congress towards the BJP, a process that started in 1985. In this context, Hardik Patel’s call for reservation is an irony.

The old KHAM formula that defined Gujarat’s politics has disintegrated. Some say that the KHAM is still relevant, but actually the politics of Hindutva has replaced KHAM. Hindutva has been so deeply ingrained in Gujarat by Modi that the larger identity of being a Hindu is more important now than caste or clan divides.

The explanation given for the delay in announcing Gujarat’s election dates was that flood relief work would have been hampered once the model code of conduct came into force. However, relief work is not covered by the model code of conduct. So the excuse was untenable and it was obvious that the BJP was playing for time to win over Gujarati voters. Modi is only too aware of the effects of demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST), but he was hoping to divert public memory from the pressing issues. With this in mind, he has inaugurated mega projects such as the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train and the Roll-On-Roll-Off shipping service at the Gulf of Khambat.

The policy of appeasement, for which the BJP traditionally mocks the Congress, was on display as over 50 posts that had been lying vacant in various government companies and boards were suddenly filled up.

The electoral fight in December will be for 182 seats in the Gujarat Assembly. In the last election in 2012, the BJP won 115 and the Congress got 61, while the remaining six were held by independents and the Nationalist Congress Party. This time, Amit Shah is calling for a 150-seat win. Yagnik, however, believes that the BJP’s tally will be no more than 100 seats. The highest number of seats won by a single party in Gujarat was 149 in 1985 for the Congress under Madhavsinh Solanki’s leadership.

No longer up against the potent force of Modi as Chief Minister, the Congress still faces an uphill task. The electorate has welcomed Rahul Gandhi on his pre-election visits, but to get the voters to warm up to him he will have to do a lot more than just get a laugh by referring to GST as Gabbar Singh Tax. Despite rumblings caused by demonetisation and GST, Gujarat might still be willing to give the BJP another chance. Modi is well aware of the simmering anger and is expected to address at least 50 rallies in the run-up to the elections, letting his old voters know that he is still there for them.

The Congress will have to rise to the challenge. Whether or not it can summon the will to do so remains to be seen. Even if the Congress does better than before, the credit will have to go to an anti-incumbency feeling rather than a pro-Congress one.

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