No sooner had the dust settled on the euphoria of sending a three term chief minister who “sold tea” as a young boy to Delhi as prime minister, than three young men with modest pasts from the home region of Narendra Modi, rose and assumed leaderships of caste-based movements, threatening the monolithic BJP. Fourteen years after being in power in Gujarat, the BJP suffered its first major breach in the bastion, in December last year, losing major local bodies to the Congress in the district and taluka panchayat elections– a verdict attributed to anti-incumbency and the Patidar agitation. It also dealt a blow to the leadership of Anandiben Patel, a Patidar who Modi had placed as his successor after his exit.
When Modi was at the helm of affairs in Gujarat, there had been dissidence attempts by Patidar leaders within the BJP, the first leading to the formation of the MahaGujarat Janata Parishad led by ex-minister Gordhan Zadaphia in 2007 and then the Gujarat Parivartan Party led by veteran ex-chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Both parties eventually merged with the BJP in 2014. Modi had succeeded in stifling all opposition within the party and remained largely a caste-neutral leader, till he flashed his OBC caste card prominently when fighting the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.
Within a year of his bagging the top job in the country, a 22 year old cricket buff and son of a submersible pump dealer from Viramgam in north Gujarat, Hardik Patel launched a movement seeking OBC status for the Patidar community perceived to be wealthy and agrarian, under the banner of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS)- an irony given that the Patidars have always backed the BJP. After his first major rally in Ahmedabad in August 2015, that led to violence and killing of nearly 10 Patidar men, Hardik and five others were booked under sedition, and PAAS trained its guns on BJP national president Amit Shah.
Political excitement peaked in the state mid 2016. In July Hardik was exiled for six months from Gujarat as per a bail condition and chose Udaipur as his station. In the same month videos of four Dalits of Una being flogged by ‘gau rakshaks’ who accused them of killing cows, went viral, provoking an uprising in the community whose leadership was taken charge of by the 35-year-old journalist-turned-lawyer, now activist Jignesh Mevani.
At the end of July, four months from her 75th birthday, Anandiben quit as CM, posting her resignation on Facebook – a sensational move for the discipline-obsessed BJP – citing the unsaid “retirement norm” of 75 years by the party. Within a week, Amit Shah confidant Vijay Rupani was sworn in giving Gujarat its third CM in four years.
Rupani was already BJP Gujarat chief, and fortunes had begun turning for the BJP by then. The Congress which had 61 assembly seats of 182, in the 2012 assembly elections, was down to 57. The party was slowly losing hold over local bodies it won last year, Gondal district panchayat being one which went back to the BJP within a year of the Congress wresting it in the by elections held last month. In the same by elections BJP won 107 of 123 district panchayat and municipality seats, which the BJP saw as a positive vote in favour of demonetisation.
The real test would be the gram panchayat elections whose results are in process. From the over 10,000 villages that were due for polls (of the total 18,000+) only 1323 opted for samras (co-opting of the village body that entitles the village to additional financial benefits) panchayats. This was way below the 2150 samras villages of 2011 when elections were last held,
Also, the cash crunch has begun playing out, especially in the labour intensive sectors and is expected to have an impact on the big ticket Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit (VGGIS) to be held in January. Conscious of this possibility, the PMO has taken charge of it almost entirely.
Modi will be in Gujarat during the VGGIS in January just as he was in 2015, along with 11 of his ministers. This will be his sixth visit to Gujarat since Anandiben’s exit. The Modi visits to Gujarat are a conscious part of the BJP plan to make up lost ground by the 2017 assembly elections. Over the last five visits, Modi has covered Saurashtra, South, Central and north Gujarat regions.
Post the Patidar agitation, the Gujarat government has bent over backwards to please piecemeal. It launched schemes targetting specific caste and communities, relaxed rules relating to land and tightened the anti-liquor laws, the latter largely on pressure from OBC leader Alpesh Thakor.
Thakor, 39, a farmer from Viramgam, led a movement organising OBCs and held his first major rally in January 2016 campaigning against liquor addiction in his community. The movement built up to pressure the government to tighten anti-drinking laws in the state.
The year 2015-16 also saw a shift in dissent from Saurashtra to the north Gujarat region, which is home to Modi, Anandiben, Amit Shah and deputy CM Nitin Patel. The Congress tried to cash in on this by flying in vice president Rahul Gandhi to address a huge rally in Mehsana last week.
However, the Congress, which has been out of power in Gujarat for over two decades, refuses to wear the war paint and appears reluctant to fight the BJP to win, which might make the 2017 elections that much less exciting.
Comparatively, Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has no electoral standing in the state so far has tried to gain a toehold, with the Delhi CM flying in frequently to express solidarity with Hardik’s PAAS and the Dalits.
After nearly 15 years, the December 2017 marathon looks like a contest. And it is likely to play out as BJP Vs BJP and BJP Vs the ‘non-BJP’.
Hardik Patel, who has ostensibly kept a safe distance from Kejriwal, warmed up to Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, and promises a grand comeback when his Gujarat exile ends mid January. But he is not yet eligible to fight an election.
Mevani, who was AAP spokesperson, quit the party at the peak of the Dalit movement but he makes no bones about his ambition to fight elections and has been busy addressing rallies across the country. And then there is Thakor who has not strongly challenged the BJP so far nor been hostile to Congress. The three leaders converged last month on one issue: stricter anti-liquor laws at a rally organised by Thakor two days before the demonetisation announcement.
If they are consistent, cooperate and remain committed, the BJP will need a desperate plan B.
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