“Gujarat’s first woman chief minister…” proclaim the opening lines on most election banners across constituencies in cities, towns and talukas due to elect their local governments on the coming Sundays (November 22 and 29).
To kick off her campaign Chief Minister Anandiben Patel chose Bapunagar – the neighbourhood worst hit by the Patidar riot in Ahmedabad — on Dhanteras last week, marking the beginning of the Diwali festival in Gujarat. Her tone was cautious as she invoked the Gods and said, “they are with us”, to instill confidence in her party workers.
She also confessed that the elections would be a tough test, given that the elections to the municipal corporations and panchayats were being held together. (The BJP has always preferred that municipal corporation elections precede rural elections, given its hold over urban voters).
Signs that the BJP is nervous had become apparent weeks earlier when the state government had issued an ordinance to postpone the local elections and had told the Gujarat high court that a “caste war” like situation prevailed which would not allow the free conduct of elections. The election notification had also kept the None of the Above (NOTA) option out. But with the HC coming down heavily on the ordinance not only would votes of all the elections be counted on one day, the voters would get back the NOTA choice.
Although the law has taken care of leader of the Patidar movement Hardik Patel and his key associates, keeping them safely out of the BJP’s way in jail under sedition charges, the anger in the community remains. Which is why in Unjha town, of Mehsana district home to the current BJP top brass, the party has not given tickets to any candidate to contest on its symbol for the municipality elections. Instead, it has fielded independents who can be later co-opted in the local body.
Some of the Patidar anger is reflected in the responses to Anandiben’s tweets, like one from a handle called ‘Jay Patidar’ which exhorts the community to “choose between development and self-respect”.
Unlike earlier elections where party leaders focused on a high turnout, this time the speeches — including Anandiben’s — avoid urging voters to come out in high numbers. With the NOTA option back, and the Patidar campaign focusing on casting a non-BJP vote, the ruling party is treading carefully.
Besides, the Bihar results has added to the Gujarat BJP’s worries, given that the Patidar agitation got its first open support from Bihar’s CM Nitish Kumar.
With their largest support base- the Patidars – upset, the BJP has decided to woo the OBCs and the migrants. Anandiben is due to attend the Chhat celebrations by the north Indian community in Ahmedabad today and the party leadership has been addressing meetings of migrant communities in Gujarat, back to back.
Elections to the six municipal corporations are due on November 22, and those to 253 municipalities, 208 taluka panchayats and 26 district panchayats on November 29. The BJP has been continuously announcing its uncontested victory score, now up to 94 seats across all local bodies, either because the rivals withdrew from the contest or were disqualified. Yet this might just be a brave face, notwithstanding the newest poll slogan– Saunu heet, Bhajapa ni Jeet (In everyone’s interest, BJP’s victory).
A BJP win would certainly mean a huge endorsement for Anandiben’s leadership. More importantly it would suggest that Modi’s or Amit Shah’s presence in a Gujarat election did not matter anymore. (There is still time for them to step in.)
A loss might still see Anandiben keep her job as Bihar continues to overshadow BJP’s possible setbacks in any other election.