When textile goods were brought under the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the textile manufacturing and trading business, of which Surat is a hub, had barely recovered from demonetisation. The current outrage over GST which spilt onto the streets of Surat this week, leading to a police lathicharge on Monday, however, seems to have political overtones. The lathi charge has become a flashpoint that could lead to loss of support from this community, ahead of the assembly elections later this year.
Controlled mostly by North Indians, the textile traders are staunch BJP supporters. In 2014, the BJP had sent cartons of sarees with the slogan, `Ab ki baar Modi sarkar’ printed by the Surat textile merchants, to different cities, ahead of the general election, and in the following year, over a lakh sarees packed in bags printed with the slogan ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikaas’ were sent to Bihar ahead of its assembly election.
At the helm of the saree campaigns, supported by textile traders of Surat, was Navsari BJP MP CR Patil, who is a Maharashtrian settled in Surat. He wielded influence not only with textile traders but with the north Indian community in Surat. Not anymore.
There are over 70,000 textile trading shops in 165 textile markets in Surat, with a daily turnover of Rs 135 crore. The sarees and dress materials manufactured and processed in Surat are packaged and sent to the majority of the states and cities across the country. With the ongoing strike, the traders face losses of thousands of crores in business. Till now, textile traders were paying only income tax; now; they say, GST will add to their tax burden. Post demonetisation last November, the textile business did not shut down but it did suffer losses for three months due to the cash crunch.
The present agitation is under the banner of Surat GST Sangharsh Samiti formed by the textile traders which includes members of the parent textile trading body, the Federation of Surat Textile Traders Association (FOSTTA).
Surat GST Sangharsh Samiti president Tarachand Kasat and few of its members are from the BJP. Kasat is Surat city BJP executive committee member. Before the agitation, the textile traders had formed two more organizations – Vepari Pragati Sangh and South Gujarat textile traders Association. The Vepari Pragati Sangh was formed by ex president of FOSTTA, Sanjay Jagnani, who is also an active BJP member. South Gujarat Textile Traders Association was formed by Sawarmal Bhudiya, a veteran textile trader, known to be close to Patil. Kasat who used to be on Patil’s side is now a rival.
It was Kasat who had announced on Saturday, when the markets opened after six days of closure following the panic ahead of the GST, that textile trading will remain closed for indefinite period.
Patil, meanwhile, called meeting of the textile traders of South Gujarat Textile Traders Association and Vepari Pragati Sangh, on Sunday (a day after GST came into effect) and claimed that over 1,000 textile traders had given him an assurance that they would open for business and that police would provide security. However, the traders organised under Kasat’s GST Sangharsh Samiti, which comprises mostly of traders originally from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, did not heed Patil’s appeal.
This indicates that the North Indian community in Surat is now split and that Patil’s hold over it has weakened. As recently as May, BJP leaders from UP and Bihar had got into a confrontation with Patil when they had gone to submit a memorandum to BJP’s Gujarat in charge Bhupendra Yadav, demanding more trains from Surat to UP and Bihar. Patil who was present there, called them “representatives of Congress party” and snubbed their demand. Later, Patil, knowing he could not annoy the North Indian migrants, organised an “Uttar Bhartiya Sammelan” in Surat as a show of strength. However, no local BJP organizational members attended the public meeting called by Patil.
As far as the textile agitation is concerned, it is a showdown between Patil and Kasat, where the latter seems to be on firmer ground. Patil claims Congressmen were also present in the textile market protest; he accuses Kasat of not holding any textile business in the area, and yet provoking the agitation. Kasat blames Patil for the police lathi charge and says he should not have intervened and allowed the agitation to go on and end in three days, as was scheduled.
The Congress, is trying to milk the situation, politically. Gujarat Pradesh Congress committee chief Bharatsinh Solanki took a couple of textile traders from Surat to meet former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, one of the brains behind the GST, to sort the issue out. The strike is likely to continue till the GST slabs are not clarified.
In a way, it is deja vu for Surat, where the Patidar quota agitation led to a similar unrest in the BJP.