The Congress may hope to upset the BJP in Gujarat with a rainbow coalition of different castes, but the saffron party believes that the move will backfire and end up boosting its prospects. BJP leaders, who are part of their party’s Gujarat Assembly poll campaign, said the Congress’s strategy to bring OBCs and Patidars, two groups accounting for more than half of the state’s voters, under its banner is full of contradictions as the two communities have competing interests and ambitions.
Patidar leader Hardik Patel’s warning to the Congress to commit itself to his community’s quota demand by November 3 or face dire consequences, is being seen by the BJP as a clear sign of these contradictions.
Reaching out to the OBC, the Congress had recently inducted Alpesh Thakor, who has rallied the community against the demand for including Patidars in the existing OBC quota.
While the opposition party has also tried to win over Patel but Thakor has insisted that the OBC quota cannot be tinkered with.
The BJP, which has remained undefeated in the state Assembly polls since 1995, has relied on the consolidation of voters around its plank of Hindutva and ‘vikas’ (development), maintaining a lead of close to 10 per cent over the Congress in vote share.
Patidars have been the lynchpin of the BJP’s support and its leaders, who did not wish to be named, insisted that a majority of them will continue to back it despite a sense of unrest among a section of the community against the party.
They played down Patel’s electoral significance, noting that a leader of the stature of former chief minister Keshubhai Patel could notch up less than four per cent of votes when his Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) fought against the BJP in the 2012 elections.
The GPP had won only two seats and it later merged with the BJP. However, some political watchers believe that Hardik Patel’s campaign against the BJP has struck a chord in the community as the quota issue raised by him has more resonance than Keshubhai’s fight which was confined to opposing the then chief minister Narendra Modi, now the prime minister.
Modi was and remains the most popular leader in the state and Keshubhai’s campaign against him had not paid him much dividends, they said.
The BJP leaders, however, appeared unfazed.
The existing constitutional bar on quota at 50 per cent makes it impossible for any party to guarantee a separate quota to Patidars, they said.
And any promise to include them in the OBC category will antagonise the numerically powerful backward castes, who make up close to 40 per cent of the state’s electorate, they said, adding that the Congress will find it tough to meet Hardik Patel’s demand.
BJP chief Amit Shah has set a target of 150 seats for the party in the 182-seat Assembly. It had won 116 seats in 2012 against 59 of the Congress.
The party believes that Modi’s charisma, its organisational superiority over the Congress, which has seen a desertion from its ranks recently with its leader Shankarsinh Vaghela floating a new organisation, and its plank of development will help it retain power in the western state.
The Congress has drawn strength from the traction its attack on the BJP’s development model has received in the state and is hopeful of ending the over two-decade-long saffron run in Prime Minister Modi’s home state.