What’s different about the Gujarat poll campaign?https://indianexpress.com/article/beyond-the-news/gujarat-assembly-elections-2017-narendra-modi-rahul-gandhi-hardik-patel-paas-bjp-whats-different-about-the-gujarat-poll-campaign-4956939/

What’s different about the Gujarat poll campaign?

Unlike in the past, the campaign in the Gujarat 2017 elections has several unusual features. Here are the most significant.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Gujarat to boost BJP election campaign
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Gujarat. (Source: Express photo by Javed)

Narendra Modi: When Modi thundered “Hun vikas chhoon, hun Gujarat chhoon (I am development, I am Gujarat),” in Gandhinagar last month, for most Gujaratis, he was right. The BJP in Gujarat means Modi and no other leader in the party enjoys the trust and goodwill he does. Even those who criticise the party and its policies add a footnote: “Modi theek hein. He works hard for the state and the country.” Voters have questions and apprehensions about the Gujarat model of governance but his image is unblemished.

Rahul Gandhi: Whether his party wins in Gujarat or not, the Congress Vice President could be the biggest gainer from the ongoing campaign. The BJP and its supporters might have ridiculed him in the past but Rahul has emerged as a sensible and serious leader to reckon with in the last one month. It’s not just that he hasn’t made any faux pas but that he has earned the respect of a wide range of people in the state. This has forced the BJP to change its tactics – sources say PM Modi would attack him and the Gandhi family more intensely during his campaign.

Gujarat Assembly elections 2017
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi with supporters in Gujarat. (Express Photo by Javed Raja)

With a reach-out-to-all programme schedule and a carefully-crafted social media campaign, the Congress team and his aides appear to have made the unexpected possible – the Congress is a challenger in the Gujarat 2017 elections. Voters in different parts of the Saurashtra region, agreed that Rahul’s campaign has contributed to making this a tough election for the BJP. However, can his party and its network transform acceptability into votes? That’s highly debatable.

Patidars: Hardik Patel draws large crowds where ever he goes. The Patidars are angry primarily because they feel the BJP has taken them and their support for granted. Patidars, its leader say, were never calculating voters and they stood by what was good for Gujarat. They have backed Modi through thick and thin. According to them, there are at least 106 (of 182) seats influenced by Patel votes. In 2012, of the 48 Patel candidates who won at the polls, 38 were from the BJP. Patidars are estimated to account for roughly one-eighth of Gujarat’s 6 crore-odd population.

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Hardik Patel, Hardik Patel sex video, Gujarat Assembly Elections 2017
PAAS national convenor Hardik Patel (Express Photo: Bhupendra Rana)

Despite the visible support for the quota agitation and the disturbing crisis in the farm sector, the entire community is unlikely to vote against the BJP. A voter in Dhasa, in Botad district put it like this: “Here, Patels are still with the BJP, but if you travel five kilometers, you will find Patidars who have turned towards the Congress.” It’s not the caste division – between the sub castes of Leuva, Kadva – nor the differences in social class that splits their votes, it’s more area-specific.

Caste: After three decades, caste has become a factor in the Gujarat elections. It was former Congress Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki who had stitched together different groups to come up with a KHAM formula – Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslims – to mark a record 141 seats victory in 1980. When nearly 40 per cent of the state’s population came together, the Patidars turned towards the BJP.

Muslims and hundreds of members of Dalit community gather for a rally in Una in 2016 after four men belonging to their community were beaten while trying to skin a dead cow in July last year. Videos of the four being stripped and beaten with sticks by men claiming to be cow protectors in Gujarat state had gone viral and sparked protests by Dalit groups across India. (AP Photo)

From the 1990s, BJP has consolidated the Hindu vote and the hatred/suspicion towards Muslims has kept the Hindu vote intact for the party. When Hardik launched his agitation in 2015, the BJP immediately faced the consequences. In the 2015 panchayat election, the BJP won just 73 panchayats while the Congress had 132. Hardik, OBC leader Alpesh Thakur and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani together have shifted the assembly election scene now –more than religion, caste matters now. The Una incident has also had its fallout: after Dalits were flogged by cow vigilante activists, the ensuing protests have punctured the “we-are-Hindus” network that has helped the BJP in the past.

Fear factor: In Gujarat, it’s very difficult to get people to talk. There is a reluctance to talk to the media – people do not want to “waste” time. But there is fear as well. Some businessmen even record their conversations with media people. Leaders of small organisations will speak to the media only if they have a trustworthy reference. However, many political observers say this is the first time the electorate in rural areas have come out in huge numbers to openly support the Opposition leaders.

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Textile traders strip down and sit on protest at Sagar Market in Surat. (Express File Photo)

Change: One does not know how far this yearning for change, palpable in some voters in urban and rural areas, will translate into votes against the ruling BJP government. But leaders of the business community and farming community admit that a section of voters want to “teach the BJP a lesson” as they feel that the party leaders in the state have become arrogant and divorced from reality.

Interestingly, there is no sign of any ideological shift among voters. Even those critics who are crying for change, feel the BJP is their natural choice. Therefore, the anger could be temporary. The majority do not see the Congress as an alternative. Being out of power for 23 years, the party does not have the organisational network nor does have it charismatic leaders to turn the feeling of discontent into support for its candidates.