Welcoming delegates to the five-day 52nd African Development Bank (AfDB) annual general meet due to conclude on Friday, the road to the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel international airport in Ahmedabad was lined with the flags of the African nations. Many of them also had BJP flags tied to the same poles, evidence that the lines between the party and the government in Gujarat have been increasingly blurred in the last few years.
After Narendra Modi became prime minister, anointing Anandiben Patel as his successor in Gujarat in 2014, the BJP faced its first major challenge in the shape of 23-year old Hardik Patel who led a movement demanding quota for the Patidar community– the backbone of the saffron party and the reason for its clout in Gujarat.
To pacify the Patidars, the BJP announced the Economically Backward Class (EBC) quota, and the Mukhyamantri Yuva Swavalmbhan yojana, a scholarship scheme for students.
The second challenge was the Dalit uprising following the Una flogging incident last July, after which Anandiben stepped down and the party brought in as chief minister, Vijay Rupani, a leader who had risen from the ranks and had a relatively non-controversial record.
Almost nine months later, the challenges seem to be under check. The core members of the Patidar movement –PAAS — continue to face criminal cases, the latest being Hardik’s father accused of misusing his arms licence in an alleged celebratory firing incident at a relative’s wedding. Permission to host public meetings are regularly denied to the self styled organization. Over the year, the wealthy members of the community who had covertly backed the agitation, have backed out. Much of the PAAS’ audacity — the clanking of rolling pins on steel plates at BJP events, the disruption of a felicitation of Shah organized by a group of wealthy Patidar businessmen in Surat last September — has fizzled out.
Coincidentally, Modi and BJP President Amit Shah have made more frequent trips to Gujarat. Modi has visited the state at least a dozen times as PM, inaugurating various public and some private projects, and leveraged his clout on home ground to host the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad, the Nobel dialogue and the AfDB annual meet in Gandhinagar. BJP leaders brush aside suggestions of undue attention to Gujarat from the PM saying, “Where else would you get such infrastructure to host events of this scale?”
Last month when Modi was in Surat to inaugurate a multi-speciality hospital built by an influential Patidar trust in Surat, the PAAS protest remained confined to social media.
The victory in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election earlier this year, has only given the BJP more confidence to shift its goal post in Gujarat to not just winning, but conquering 150 of 182 assembly seats in the elections to be held later this year. The BJP, which won 127 seats in 2002 — the highest ever so far — is confident of hitting a target of 130.
These days, most events or occasions are turned into mega celebrations and mobilization opportunities for the party. The party “celebrated” the surgical strikes, demonetization, and is gearing up for breaking a record in Gujarat on international yoga day, on June 21, when yoga guru Ramdev will be a guest. Events have been planned till end of June to keep the cadres busy and engaged.
“We have not rested a single day since the Lok Sabha elections,” said a senior leader. This, even when the Congress was completely decimated — not winning a single of the 26 seats in Gujarat in the Lok Sabha in 2014. Now Shah has pledged to “remove the Congress even from the booths”.
Nearly 550 vistaraks (people specially trained and committed for mobilisation) are at work, at booths, meeting voters to tell them about the various achievements of the Modi the Rupani governments.“UP was won only because we had parachuted 16,000 such vistaraks for a door to door contact,” said the leader.
While the Rupani government is busy announcing benefits focusing on constituencies — not just based on caste, but youth, women, physically challenged (divyang), farmers, labourers, the party is pushing its “cells” constituted for these sections, to market them to people with extensive use of social media. The fortification of the existing laws banning cow slaughter and drinking, are most likely to be used to bolster Hindutva and silence opponents.
Part of the BJP strategy is to continuously talk about the party being for the “poor, underprivileged and the last man”. Shah had declared at his last party meeting how the BJP which was earlier known as a party for the “urban” and “prosperous” had now won over the poor, the farmers, the Dalits, and the adivasis.
Meanwhile, the Congress struggles to match up to the BJP’s aggressive outreach, and has failed to cash in on the unrest in the communities like the Patidars, the Dalits and the OBCs. While AAP’s voice in Gujarat is feebler since the Punjab defeat, the Congress remains engaged in organizational power struggles.
However, the BJP will have to factor in Hardik , OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who are young, ambitious, quietly mobilizing their communities but giving out confusing signals about their political allegiance. Besides, a bad monsoon could damage prospects for the party.
Going by sheer numbers, OBCs are nearly 20 per cent of the Gujarat population, while Patidars are between 10-14 per cent and Dalits are only around seven percent. With the wealthy Patidars on its side already, the BJP need only worry about the OBCs and tribals.