SINCE the beginning of this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited Gujarat almost every month. In the past 30 days, he has come four times. On October 16, with poll dates not yet announced, he will come again, to mark the end of the BJP’s Gaurav Yatra. The 15-day yatra, covering 149 of the state’s 182 constituencies, bears the same name as a yatra taken out by Modi in 2002 as chief minister following criticism over the Godhra riots. This time, the slogan is ‘Hun chhu GUJARAT, Hun chhu VIKAS (I am GUJARAT, I am VIKAS)’.
Rarely in the BJP’s 22-year reign in Gujarat has the agenda seemed dictated by others. The yatra was announced after Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s Navsarjan Yatra took off to an impressive start in Saurashtra. Its slogan appeared to be a counter to a social media campaign, ‘Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe (Vikas has gone crazy)’, whose popularity has hinted that all may not be well in Modi’s Fortress Gujarat.
For a party that prides itself on being ahead in the perception game, there have been other surprises coming out of the state, including a huge rally by textile workers disgruntled over the GST in Surat in July; the nail-biting win for Ahmed Patel in August; protests that have disrupted its Gaurav Yatra; and the crowds for Rahul’s rallies. The allegations against Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah’s business dealings have also given the Opposition ammunition.
Suddenly, while the BJP is still far ahead of the pack, party president Amit Shah’s ‘150’ mark for Gujarat seems difficult. Shah, who must win Gujarat for the first time without Modi in the race, picked the number as it was 1 more than the largest number of seats ever won in the state — 149, by the Congress led by Madhavsinh Solanki, in 1985.
The BJP, despite winning Gujarat non-stop since 1995, has never crossed 127 seats. That was in 2002, the year of the riots. In Modi’s last election as CM, in 2012, the BJP won 115 seats. The Congress, despite its many setbacks, has never dropped below 38 per cent of the vote bank in Modi’s time.
*****The recent flurry apart, Gujarat’s Vijay Rupani government has been on a project-announcement spree for one month now (see box). During his last two-day trip, Modi himself unveiled Rs 10,800 crore worth of plans. BJP leaders have also been touring the state non-stop. For the Gaurav Yatra, the speakers include Union ministers Smriti Irani, Rajnath Singh and Uma Bharti, and CMs Vasundhara Raje, Yogi Adityanath.
Gujarat is used to Modi deploying every weapon in his armoury to win polls. In 2010, central leaders Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari had campaigned with Modi for the municipal corporation polls, which were critical for him to win the Assembly polls of 2012, in turn to pitchfork him to Delhi.
This time, apart from Shah’s trusted aides — Bhupender Yadav, Pradeepsinh Jadeja and Jitu Vaghani (the state BJP chief) — Modi has Arun Jaitley and Nirmala Sitharaman, Union ministers with the busy portfolios of Finance and Defence, monitoring the war-room.
But the first sign that the BJP’s high-pitch message may be off-track came during the bullet train announcement. It was to be the crowning glory of Modi’s gifts to his state, with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s presence by his side for two days in the state adding an extra sheen.
It was around then that the Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe campaign went viral. Memes with the hashtag blindsided the BJP that was hoping to cash in on the train. It even led to an exasperated Shah admonishing a youth meeting “to apply their minds before believing everything on WhatsApp”. It was the first time, a BJP leader admits, that the party found itself on the backfoot thus on social media, that it had made its forte.
Varun Patel, the media convenor of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), says, “The Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe post was put up by Sagar Savaliya (a Patidar youth) on Facebook. It was soon picked up by agitating Patidars, and later the Congress’s IT cell.” What the videos and photos did was bring out the anger over the GST (Goods and Services Tax) and demonetisation. Textile traders in the state held a month-long strike against losses of nearly 1,500 crore due to the measures. Dominated by North Indians, the traders are traditionally BJP supporters. On his last visit, Modi tried to placate them by inaugurating a weekly train to Bihar from Surat.
However, the traders remain angry, complaining that the recent GST revision only covers those with an annual turnover of Rs 1.50 crore or less, which leaves out most of them. Also angry are farmers. Shah had declared initially that the BJP would fight on the issues of the Narmada project and OBC welfare. The party conducted the Narmada Yatra in districts where the project has its reach, at the end of which Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar dam. But with the Narmada canal network not completed, farmers are unmoved.
In recent months, the government has announced sops such as paying fixed-wage employees as per the Seventh Pay Commission and higher MSPs. Says Bhupender Yadav, the BJP general secretary in charge of Gujarat, “A comparison between the Congress and BJP regimes would show there has been tremendous growth in agriculture, industry, education, and improvement in law and order.”
“Yes, the GST hiccups have upset the traders, the BJP’s core support base. But the leadership is confident there won’t be a massive erosion there. Some schemes will be announced soon,” notes a senior leader. Party leaders also say that Shah remains confident. “Some of us had some worries. But he is positive about BJP machinery’s efficiency on the ground,” says a general secretary.
Gujarat BJP chief Jitu Vaghani brushes off the suggestion that Modi’s visits indicate a nervousness. “Narendrabhai is the son of Gujarat. Whenever he comes, he brings benefits. So we always insist on his visits,” he says.
While the criticism on vikas has obviously rankled the BJP, old-fashioned caste calculations too have the party worried. Comprising around 12% of the vote share in Gujarat, but wielding larger influence due to their economic clout, the Patidars after a long time are looking at voting against the BJP.
The BJP has had their loyalty since the 1980s, when the Patidars turned away from the Congress after the Madhavsinh Solanki government provided OBCs reservation, and later, perfected KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) as its vote math.
It was in July 2015 that Hardik Patel first came into the picture, demanding reservation for Patidars. The BJP first underestimated the unrest, and later miscalculated it, leading to 10 deaths in riots following Hardik’s arrest.
Despite courts banishing Hardik from Gujarat for six months, the BJP’s Hardik problem is far from over. The party’s support among the Patidars was already sliding, with the community voting in large numbers for Modi’s old rival Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) in 2012, even if it won two seats. GPP has since merged with the BJP.
Hardik, who can’t himself contest as he is not yet 25, is likely to wield influence among the Patidars in Saurashtra, Surat and North Gujarat districts of Mehsana and Patan. He is indirectly calling for his community to vote for the Congress, and extensively touring the state, drawing huge crowds.
The BJP has now started withdrawing cases against PAAS members. Minister of State for Home Pradeepsinh Jadeja admitted recently that this was part of talks with the community.
Besides, the state government has set up a corporation to consider the case of unreserved categories, and a commission to probe police atrocities on the PAAS. Recently, Modi inaugurated an ashram for pilgrims in Haridwar from the Kadva Patidar community.
Hardik isn’t the only young leader to have emerged as the face of a community’s anger with the state government. There is also Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani and OBC face Alpesh Thakor. Mewani rose to prominence with the Dalit self-respect agitation he launched following the flogging of Dalits in Una in July last year. Thakor is the founder of the OSS (OBC, SC and ST) Ekta March, and presented himself as the voice of downtrodden communities in the wake of the Patidar quota demand.
However, unlike Hardik, the state government doesn’t seem threatened by Mewani as the Dalits form just 7-8% of the state population, and have never voted as a block or united under a single leader. The Una ripples seem to have faded, despite some recent attacks on them around Navratris gaining attention.
With OBCs forming the largest, 40%, vote chunk in Gujarat, it’s them that the BJP is most wary about. Last month, Shah cancelled his meeting with OBCs in Fagvel, which coincided with his appearance as witness for former minister Maya Kodnani in the 2002 Naroda Gam case. The reason given was “heavy rain”.
But again Thakor, who has begun campaigning among farmers, is yet to demonstrate his hold over the community.
Meanwhile, the Congress is watching. Party sources in Delhi say a tie-up with Hardik has almost been clinched, through other leaders part of the Patidar agitation. “Out of nine people key to that stir, six have Youth Congress and Congress background… People like Varun Patel and Reshma Patel of the PAAS. Candidates of their choice would be fielded in around 10 seats,” a Congress leader says.
Back-channel talks are reportedly also on with Mewani, who too is anti-BJP, and Thakor. However, Thakor is believed to be fluid. A senior Congress leader says, “He has given a sort of wish list and said whoever supports his demands will get his support.”
Publicly, the BJP dismisses Hardik, Mewani and Thakor as “opportunists” facilitated by Congress. It is also confident of the OBCs. Apart from Modi himself underlining his Teli community, the BJP in Gujarat has been celebrating ‘Koli’ Ram Nath Kovind’s election as President. At 16% of the population, Kolis are the largest sub-sect among OBCs in Gujarat.
The other vote bank the BJP is wooing are tribals, who form a sizeable 14% of the population. The Adivasi Vikas Gaurav Yatra talked about their pride and development.
Bhupender Yadav says recent bypoll results bear out that the BJP continues to be popular. “The BJP won six out of eight by-polls for local bodies, across seven districts. The Congress is betraying the people. The way the Congress stalled the NCBC (National Commission for Backward Classes) Bill (which would have given the NCBC constitutional status) was seen by the people of Gujarat.”
However, even if the caste disruptions don’t amount to much, what Hardik, Thakor and Mewani have ensured is that the BJP cannot coast on the strength of the Hindutva vote alone this time. They have raised questions on jobs, farm produce and development, and are forcing the party to address them.
As recently as August, the single Rajya Sabha seat that the Congress had to sweat to win for its party president Sonia Gandhi’s closest confidant Ahmed Patel appeared to underline the party’s dismal condition. That followed the rebellion engineered by senior leader Shankersinh Vaghela, who walked out of the party along with 13 MLAs. That Ahmed Patel still won was seen as more the result of the old warhorse’s own machinations.
It’s only two months hence, and August is fading away.
Before he began his Navsarjan Yatra, Rahul’s last public meeting in Gujarat had been in Mehsana in December 2016. Though it came just two months after demonetisation, it had not created any ripples.
No one, including the Congress, expected his Navsarjan tour, which has so far covered Saurashtra and Central Gujarat, would generate the response it did. Party leaders say they charted the route — covered on a bus bearing the slogan ‘Yuva Rozgar, Khedut Adhikar (Jobs to Youth, Rights to Farmers)’ — to ensure he crosses the maximum constituencies. Party leaders talk gleefully of taking the BJP by surprise by announcing his schedule late.
Leaders working closely with Rahul have been doing the ground work. AICC in-charge of Gujarat Ashok Gehlot has been camping in the state since months. Youth and student wings have been told to mobilise students.
The result is that while the first phase of Rahul’s yatra coincided with Gujarat’s biggest festival season, Navratri, his pit-stops have included the state’s biggest temples and youth interactions. The Congress thus showed willingness to take on the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva, while in the new ease he showed at his interactions, Rahul portrayed himself as a contrast to Modi. He underlined that he accommodates dissent, criticism and even the BJP.
Although the BJP continues to ridicule him, it hasn’t raised any solid points — mocking him for entering a women’s toilet by mistake, for not knowing temple rituals, and for a misspelt temple name. The BJP’s criticism of Rahul’s remark that he had never seen a woman in shorts at RSS meetings didn’t cut much ice.
On the other hand, in a move that hasn’t gone unnoticed, in his visit to Gujarat directly after Rahul’s first phase, Modi almost traced the Congress vice-president’s footsteps through the state.
Says former GPCC chief Arjun Modhwadia, “One important aspect is that Rahul Gandhi has avoided mentioning Muslims or minorities, thus not providing the BJP a chance to polarise the electorate on religious lines. His yatra has prepared the ground for fighting the elections on real issues such as unemployment and corruption.”
The Congress assessment is that there is much anger against the BJP government on these issues, and that if the party executes its campaign effectively, fields the right candidates and finds the perfect caste and community combination, the Gujarat story could be different this time.
Focusing on farmers, youth and women, the Congress has launched a ‘Kisan mang patra’ signature drive for agriculture loan waiver, a Navsarjan Yuva Rozgar Abhiyaan promising unemployment allowance, and revived its Ghar Nu Ghar promise of 2012, which it believes was a hit among women.
But the Congress remains plagued by lack of strong local leaders and internal bickering. The Central leadership is also said to be perplexed at the state leaders’ reluctance to aggressively attack the BJP government. For instance, senior leaders said, proposals like Congress Patel leaders taking out a march to the site where Sardar Patel’s statue is coming up, to highlight the fact that its parts are being made in China found little acceptance.
The most surprising, senior leaders say, is the reluctance to pick up CAG reports indicting the BJP government. “The Manmohan Singh government was tarnished on the basis of CAG reports,” the leader points out. The Gujarat government has tended to table the reports on the last day of Assembly sessions.
Modhwadia insists that the threat Vaghela was expected to pose to the Congress though is over. “In every election, he blackmailed the party and pushed for tickets for his supporters. With his exit, the party has become united and tickets will be given on merit.”
Rahul will return to Gujarat in the first week of November, for the third phase of his yatra. Two three-day road trips are planned. Some Congress leaders, meanwhile, have already started talking 2019, saying that even if the party loses this one, Rahul could have set the stage for the next general election.
With SYED KHALIQUE AHMED, AVINASH NAIR & RITU SHARMA in Ahmedabad; ENS Delhi