Sitting on a bike outside his shop in Surat’s Varachha, Alpesh Lakhani says he and others in his Leuva Patel community had “almost decided” to vote for the Congress this election. “Hardik Patel’s movement had touched our hearts. Besides, there was a lot of anger due to notebandi and then GST. We had decided we would teach the BJP a lesson when the Limbayat sabha changed all that,” says Lakhani, 52, who works as a diamond polisher for Rs 15,000 a month, besides running a small shop of electric appliances.
Lakhani is referring to Narendra Modi’s December 7 campaign speech in Surat’s Limbayat, where the PM targeted the Congress over Mani Shankar Aiyar’s remark calling him a “neech kism ka aadmi”, linked it to his caste and called it an “insult” to Gujarat. Lakhani says he watched Modi’s speech on TV. “Every Gujarati’s heart was pained… A lot of us changed our minds and voted for the BJP,” says Lakhani.
Surat has been a BJP stronghold since 1995. But this election, traders were upset with the BJP over demonetisation and GST —the city had shut for 22 days in July-August. Surat was also the epicentre of the Patidar quota stir — lakhs had turned up for Hardik Patel’s rally in August 2015.
But on December 18, the BJP retained all 12 seats in Surat city and lost just one of the 16 seats of the district. In other major urban areas that had witnessed demonstrations against demonetisation and GST, too, the BJP staved off the Congress challenge. Of the 99 seats the BJP won across the state, urban seats accounted for 72% of its lead (21.3 lakh votes of 29.7 lakh). How did the BJP tide over the anger among traders in urban centres?
Political analyst Vikram Vakil says, “Yes, a lot of youngsters turned up for Hardik’s rally. But they are probably migrants from Saurashtra and don’t have a vote in Surat. The older generation of Patidars in Surat, those above 40, have seen Congress rule in the past, when security was a major concern, so they probably think the BJP is still a better bet. Besides, traders of Surat may be unhappy about GST but they still see Narendra Modi are someone who can turn things around.”
Manoj Agrawal, president of Federation of Surat Textile Traders Associations, says, “We are against the policies of the government, but still with BJP… The reason traders stick to the BJP in Surat is that they don’t want to face any harassment in running their businesses.” Surat has around 60,000 textile trading shops in 170 textile markets.
Surat city BJP vice-president P V S Sarma says, “The traders might have understood that if they voted for the BJP, their issues would be sorted out soon.” What finally worked to the BJP’s favour, he adds, was its organisational strength.
Surat, once known for its textile mills, is now the country’s diamond hub, with two of 10 diamonds in the world said to be polished in the city. This industry is largely powered by Patidars who migrated in the 1980s from water-scarce Saurashtra to Surat. The city now has over 12 lakh Patidars.
Lakhani, the diamond polisher, is originally from Junagadh, Saurashtra. He notes that the two regions voted very differently: the Congress won 28 out of 48 seats in Saurashtra. “My two elder brothers are farmers in Saurashtra and their problems are different — no water and power supply, low crop prices… So they voted for the Congress, hoping their issues would be resolved.”
Chirag Rakholiya, 24, is studying for his postgraduation in chemistry while preparing for GPSC exams. His father Mahesh Rakhokiya is a manager in a diamond unit. A Leuva Patel, Chirag says he voted for the BJP though he supports the demand for reservation. “My vote was determined by safety, security and development of Surat,” he says. Chirag has misgivings over Hardik’s “methods”. “He likes popularity. A large number of people who support him do not understand the specifics of how Patidar youths stand to benefit from his demands.”
Bharti Panara, 27, a BCom whose husband Nilesh works in a diamond factory, is unimpressed with Hardik. “We have seen and felt vikas — look at our broad roads, uninterrupted power and water supply and safety for women on the roads,” she says. “We have seen clashes between members of PAAS (Hardik’s organisation) and BJP…Earlier, people who supported Hardik voted for the Congress during the last municipal elections… We are business-minded people and don’t like violence. People believe that if BJP returns to power, the nuisance of PAAS will be gone,” says Bharti.
Migrants from other states — there are an estimated 15 lakh in the city — also played a part in the BJP sweep of urban Surat. Binod Paliwal, who owns a dyeing and printing unit, is originally from Bihar and says most of his workers are migrants from UP and Bihar. “They come here, see development they would have never seen back home and turn into staunch BJP supporters,” he says.
Govind Dholakia, a Leuva Patidar who owns Shri Ramkrishna Exports, a diamond polishing unit that employs over 6,000 workers, agrees that owners of textile mills and diamond units “have good relations with the ruling party”, although he denies it has a bearing on how workers vote.
Former Congress mayor Kadir Pirzada concedes the party organisation failed in urban centres. “We were hopeful that of Surat’s 12 urban seats, we would win at least three. We are assessing the reasons for the loss.”