If there is a tweak in the familiar story of the Gujarat election, if this time the 27-year-incumbent is facing a plucky new competitor it cannot ignore, it has a lot to do with what happened in Surat in 2021. Come here to get a closer glimpse of the Gujarat election’s newly minted triangle — BJP vs Congress vs AAP.
The Congress’s strong showing in 2017 — going up to 77 seats, confining the BJP to 99 — sets off barely a ripple today in this urban centre where a whole generation of voters has grown up seeing only the BJP’s MLAs. But the AAP’s performance in Surat’s 2021 municipal corporation polls is a talking point, across swathes of voters.
Ever since 27 of its candidates became corporators, Kejriwal’s party has made its presence felt in this BJP city.
It is riding several resentments in Surat.
To begin with, left-over anger from the Patidar aandolan for reservation — the movement has long splintered, its most prominent leader Hardik Patel is now in the BJP, and the politically articulate community is looking at the recently 10 per cent EWS quota with hope, but pending cases and memories of those killed in the agitation are a source of continuing bitterness in the large migrant Patidar population which comes from Saurashtra to work in the diamond and textile industries in Surat.
There is worker unrest against working conditions and aam aadmi concerns over price rise, unemployment, corruption, and mounting costs of education. There is also simmering grievance against a ruling party whose long years in power are seen to have made it unresponsive to voter concerns.
At the same time, for all the talk about the new challenger, the impression is of the AAP’s knock, more than a sense of its arrival, in Surat.
Many BJP voters profess unflinching support to PM Narendra Modi even as they express dissatisfaction with BJP rule in the state — “Modi nirdosh hai (Modi is not at fault)”, announces Pareshbhai Wekaria, in the brokerage business, outside a bus shelter in the city’s Yogi Chowk. On the campus of MTB college, student Mehul Adhir says, “Ram mandir, surgical strike, GST, G-20… sab kuchch hai… (the BJP has given us everything)”.
Many say there is a “craze” for AAP among the young, but also that its entry in the Gujarat fray will only help the BJP pull further ahead in a triangular contest. Others speak of the AAP only as an option for nudging the BJP towards greater accountability. This is a state, after all, where the BJP is The System, not just a party.
The BJP System stands on the twin pillars of visible development and visible division. Prosperous because of diamonds and textiles, Surat is also the projected site and beneficiary of projects worth hundreds of crores, from bridges and flyovers to expressways, coastal highway, metro, “world class airport” and bullet train.
Like the prosperity, the social division wasn’t created by the BJP, but the party has worked to deepen it.
Sharifa Vijaliwala, Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer and translator, who teaches in Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, remembers how she struggled as a Muslim to find a house in this otherwise hospitable city of migrants even in the 1990s.
“They said, change your name, or live in your own (Muslim) area. I refused to do either … from 1991 to 2009, I stayed in a hostel, as student and then as rector. I got a house only when a messiah-like builder agreed to sell me a flat in a non-Muslim area.” She has always fought back against the bigotry, she says, but she kept all-Hindu names for her brother’s four children so that they don’t have to fight the battles she has had to. “The topi and tilak have only grown everywhere in Gujarat since 1992”.
With only days to go before polling in Surat Thursday, minister and BJP candidate from Surat West, Purnesh Modi, claims there’s no anti-incumbency because the people don’t want “appeasement politics” by those who stand with the “Bharat tere tukde gang”, and because people fear that “Taliban jaisa na ho jaaye (Taliban-style rule may come)”.
He dismisses the AAP challenge — the municipal poll results, he points out, have rarely corresponded with assembly outcomes. But this time, he also says, the BJP’s booth management has gone more micro than before — “Where there was one panna pramukh (in charge of 30 wards), now there is a committee of five”.
The BJP paints the AAP as a party of one pocket of Surat and one community — the diamond and embroidery hub in Varachha area that is home to most of the Patidar migrants from Saurashtra.
The AAP’s 27 corporators in 2021 were from Varachha, of them 23 were Patidars. (Six later crossed over to the BJP, and even though two returned, the AAP is getting its first taste of the great crossover story that has seen the Gujarat Congress steadily bleed leaders into the more resourceful and predatory BJP).
In his campaign office near Yogi chowk in Varachha, AAP candidate Ram Dhaduk, civil engineer turned activist turned politician, whose campaign’s tagline is “Haan main ladoonga (yes, I will fight)”, counters: “It is true that many of those involved in the Patidar aandolan are in AAP today, the old Patidar leadership was with the BJP, the younger generation is with us. But in the last six months, there have been agitations across sections of Gujarat’s society— karamchari unions, farmers, Asha workers, para medical staff, bank employees… The BJP government is on the back foot”.
The AAP’s “guarantee card”, which promises 300 units of free electricity, Rs 1,000 to women over 18, and an unemployment allowance of Rs 3,000 to every graduate every month, elicits mixed reactions in a people accustomed to asking dry-eyed questions about money.
Many ask if anything is ever free. But the AAP’s “Delhi model” of state-led programmes in health and education also appears to resonate amid the gathering distress at the lower ends of the class spectrum.
A new political line may be tentatively visible in this diamond and textile city — between traders and workers.
“There is nothing new in this election… BJP ke sivay yahan koi dikhayi nahin deta (we can see no one here other than the BJP)”, says Jagdish Khunt, vice president, Surat Diamond Association. Rangnath Sharda, director, Federation of Surat Textile Traders Association says “lad ke ya prem se, isi government se lena hai (we can do business only with the BJP government)”.
On the other side is Ramesh Jilariya, president of the Diamond Worker Union. “We have a list of demands since 2008 but the BJP government has done nothing — we get no overtime, no PF…” He holds up a letter — “The AAP has given a written assurance that they will solve our issues if they come to power”.
But that line — between workers and traders — doesn’t always hold. At Yogi chowk, Vipul bhai, a diamond worker, says prices may have risen on its watch, but “BJP Hindutvavadi to hai (at least the BJP is pro-Hindu)”. Anyone who takes on the BJP must compete with it not on one front but two — on its “kaam (development)”, but also its pro-Hinduness, he says.
AAP’s Dhaduk speaks of his party’s predicament: “They (BJP) put up edited posters of Kejriwal here with a (Muslim) cap… dadhi bana di (painted on a beard)”, he says.
That the Congress is barely seen or heard in Surat in this election is remarkable but not so surprising, perhaps, given that it has seen successive electoral defeats for over two decades in this city.
But even in the tribal belt in the adjoining Tapi district, where the Congress won even as it shrank in the urban centre, and where fears of displacement by the “pariyojana” or project continue to stoke popular suspicion of the BJP, the party seems less than the sum of its blinkered parts.
In Borakhadi village in the constituency of Vyara, four-term MLA and Congress candidate Poonabhai Gamit arrives in a convoy of cars that also carries most of his audience for the small election meeting.
Congress is not bringing out its national firepower, unlike the AAP and BJP — Rahul Gandhi broke away from his Bharat Jodo Yatra only once so far for the Gujarat campaign even as Modi-Yogi-central ministers and AAP’s Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann have held meetings and roadshows in the tribal belt. “I will win, even if a big Congress leader does not come, because no one here wants change”, Gamit says.
A splintered Congress campaign that lacks a centre makes even Morbi — where a bridge collapse on the BJP government’s watch drew the nation’s attention to the tragedy of 135 lost lives — seem far away. “Morbi is not an issue here… I have not seen the bridge, it is 400-500 km from here”, says Gamit.