Maybe the BJP too did not expect the sweep it did in the local body elections held across 16 districts on Sunday, given that it was the first after the demonetisation announcement and the party had been jittery. It won 109 of the 126 seats across district and taluka panchayats and municipalities in Gujarat.
Scratch the surface and the mandate seems more against using the powerful vote to bring in a political alternative whose apparent face was that of a reluctant challenger, in this case – the Congress.
The victory of the Gondal taluka panchayat is a case in point. Exactly a year ago , the Congress won it evidently because of the overpowering sentiment against the establishment following the Patidar agitation, fresh then in the action realm of Gujarat’s politics.
The Congress had won 12 and the BJP 10 seats in the panchayat, of the taluka largely seen as a BJP influenced one, last December. The panchayat, however could not pass the budget after three attempts due to one of its members cross-voting and the taluka was superceded in June calling for a mid term election, and the BJP today has won 18 of the 22 seats.
Long before demonetisation or even the change of guard in Gandhinagar, the Congress was losing ground, it had lost the Talala assembly seat in the by-election to the BJP last May inspite of a seeming disenchantment with the state leadership of the BJP. More immediate was the Monday win by BJP of the Mehsana Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) elections, after the Congress, which had ruled for 38 years, withdrew from the contest.
Apart from the Gujarat Congress’s failed efforts to regain foothold in its former constituencies, the BJP made some quick moves beginning with the replacement of chief minister Anandiben Patel by Vijay Rupani, coupled with the exile of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel, scaling down the quota agitation to a large extent. The government’s offer to hold talks with Hardik, may have sounded reconciliatory, but was “bold” and probably blunted the impact of the PAAS rally against the “inconvenience caused to public” because of demonetisation, in Surat, the following day. (It steered clear of a direct protest against demonetisation).
The rally also did not see a major turnout, given that the smaller diamond units mostly run by Patidars, not yet having opened due to the cash crunch. The government though, is yet to address the issue of the loss in business staring in the face of the diamond and textile sector, because of the demonetisation. A day before the elections, the Centre lifted the six-year-old moratorium from the three major industrial clusters, Vapi, which was facing elections, being one of them, which was clearly aimed at getting them on its side.
The BJP victory suggests that the queues outside the banks cannot be a yardstick. People in the queues may have been largely fatigued and frustrated but they seemed not to mind the arduous role play in the “national cause”, as demonetisation has been trumpeted by the BJP. However, the BJP had been worried, soon after November 8, having just thumped chests over the LoC surgical strike, and then to be faced by demonetisation. Some of those impacted by the withdrawal of the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, had contributed to the party in various elections and were heard complaining.
There were also protests against the RBI curbs on the district central co-operative banks (DCCBs) from the BJP’s own quarters, like MP Vitthal Radadiya and former Gujarat minister Dileep Sanghani who are leaders in the co-operative banking sector.
Notwithstanding the Centre’s piecemeal releases on relief and rules following the demonetisation, no contesting party appeared to have made it an issue in the local election. If there was an anti-BJP sentiment, no opposition party tapped it enough. At best, the opposition protests to demonetisation, lacked clarity, most of them in the garb of protesting “the method” than the move. A day before the elections, the Gujarat Congress put off its participation in the Bharat bandh, leading to confusion among its followers. Besides, the BJP under Rupani is coming into its own, given the relatively clean and accessible-to-public image of the CM, contrary to his predecessor. His government moved swiftly to launch a campaign to open Jan Dhan accounts for all those in the informal sector, in an attempt to get them into Digital India, and all of this might add up to electoral gains in the future.