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Gujarat elections: Not as close as in 2017, anti-incumbency fails to dent BJP bedrock in Saurashtra

“(If I were Rahul) I would have started my Yatra from Somnath... Last time, Congress was fighting for satta (power), now it's for astitva (identity). AAP is fighting for Congress place,” says former BJP CM Vijay Rupani.

modi rallyPrime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a crowd during an election campaign as part of 'Vijay Sankalp Sammelan' at Race Course Ground in Rajkot. (Express photo by Chitral Khambhati)

The Prime Minister’s late evening rally in Rajkot didn’t come close to filling up its Race Course ground two days before the city goes to vote. Rows of empty white plastic chairs were conspicuous and most of Narendra Modi’s audience seemed made of party cadres wearing saffron cap and scarf.

In village Vanapari, about 30 km from Rajkot city, a group of women say they will vote for the BJP because of the (BJP) sarpanch. “Our village is small, our work gets done through the sarpanch,” says Manju. It has been the same BJP sarpanch for 25 years. “For us, sarpanch is raja (king),” says Rama ben. “Modi se koi lena dena nahin hai (we have nothing to do with Modi),” Manju says.

Crowd gathered for PM Modi’s rally in Rajkot. (Express photo by Chitral Khambhati)

Those two images are deceptive and telling.

The empty seats at the PM’s rally are not a political sign in an election in which one thing seems clear — Modi’s charisma is undimmed in the state where he was Chief Minister and which he is still tied to by a kind of benign remote control that allows him to enjoy presence and power but shields him from the growing calls for accountability.

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Anti-incumbency is real in Gujarat. It is made of genuine grievances on issues ranging from price rise to low MSPs for farmers, the State’s retreat from education to government job examination paper leaks. But Modi remains the only towering pan-Gujarat figure in this election — the Congress has only regional candidates and satraps, while the AAP’s big leader, Arvind Kejriwal, is neither prime minister nor son of the state.

The apparent preference of the BJP sarpanch over Modi expressed by the women voters of Vanpari village is actually a statement of the deep political infrastructure the BJP has built in this state over its 27 years in power – easy to underestimate or ignore in an election in which it can look like the BJP is fighting only in Modi’s name.

PM Modi arrives for a meeting in Rajkot. (PTI)

This is especially so in Saurashtra. In this election, this region is being closely tracked because the BJP’s relatively poor performance and tthe Congress’s good showing here in 2017 had narrowed the gap between the two parties to 99 vs 77, bringing the Congress almost within touching distance of power.

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At that time, resentments against the BJP government were sparked by the coming together of several storms — the Patidar quota agitation, the farmers’ unrest that had sharpened after floods and fumbles in the introduction of the GST.

Five years later, those agitations and resentments have faded, the star of the Patidar aandolan, Hardik Patel, is in the BJP and farmer distress is no longer as articulate. Now, a more traditional Saurashtra picture may be re-surfacing: In this region, of the 52 seats in 1998, the BJP won 44. In 2002, after delimitation, of the 48 seats, the BJP won 35. In 2012, the BJP won 30, before coming down to 19 in 2017.

Over the last five years, political change in Saurashtra may be framed by another set of figures: 99, 112, 9.

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The BJP tally, which had come down to 99 seats in the 2017, went up to 112 on the back of cross-overs by Congress MLAs who got re-elected on a BJP ticket — as many as nine of them belonged to Saurashtra. Those who abandoned the Congress for the BJP were “sashakt (strong)” MLAs, their loss compounding the fallout in the Gujarat Congress of the vacillation and vacuum, after 2019, in its central leadership.

In these five years, too, the BJP has won almost all local elections of panchayat and corporation, in Saurashtra.

Caste rears its head, most sharply in Gujarat, in Saurashtra. Patidars and Kolis — excluded from the Congress’s traditional formula of KHAM — are the two big communities and the AAP’s entry has made the caste configuration a talking point in every seat.

Congress disadvantage in this region is also made of older factors like the anti-Congress sentiment fuelled by the Navnirman Aandolan which kicked off from here, in Morbi. Though it was at the receiving end of the Patidar and farmer agitation in 2017, the BJP has grown in this region as a party of aandolan or movement, since the days of the Jan Sangh. Modi fought his first election from Rajkot’s “safe seat”.

And yet, in this election, as the skies overhead buzz with private helicopters carrying BJP and AAP heavyweights, the Congress seems almost oblivious to the stakes.

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At the Congress office in Bhavnagar, candidate Kishorsinh Kumbhaji Gohil speaks optimistically of an older caste alignment and formula falling into place: “15 per cent vote of Patidar vote is still ours, and then we have the whole of Muslim, Kshatriya and Dalit vote.”

KK Gohil of Congress is the main challenger for sitting MLA Jitu Vaghani in Bhavnagar West constituency. (Express Photo by Bhupendra Rana)

“(If I were Rahul) I would have started my Bharat Jodo Yatra from Somnath,” says senior BJP leader Vijay Rupani, who belongs to Rajkot and who was abruptly removed as chief minister by the party high command in 2021 to blunt anti-incumbency — one of the BJP’s many moves that show that Modi’s party is not banking only on traditional formulas even in its bastion. Now prabhari for Punjab and Chandigarh, Rupani says that “In the last election, the Congress was fighting for satta (power), in this election for astitva (identity). The AAP is fighting to take the Congress’s place.”

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Congress unwillingness or inability to get its central leadership to campaign in Gujarat this time and its lack of a pan-Gujarat leadership mean that party candidates have been left to win or lose on their own strengths. This combines with a familiar Gujarat Congress story: With little will-to-win and a lot of intra-party factionalism, the Congress’s best hopes lie in a scenario of the BJP vs BJP, and now the gamble that the AAP’s entry may hurt the BJP more.

For now, the AAP has injected itself into conversations in Saurashtra as well — not just in the urban centres but also in its villages.

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Vijay Rupani, former chief minister of Gujarat, at his
residence in Rajkot on Tuesday. (Express Photo by Bhupendra Rana)

In MVM Science and Home Science women’s college at Rajkot, Trupti, a student, argues for Kejriwal’s party with her friends who talk of the BJP and Congress, more the BJP than the Congress: “Because education fee will go down. And farmers will benefit. The AAP has worked in Delhi.”

The AAP campaign is far livelier than the Congress’s — the 300 units of free electricity a month promise figures in both the Congress manifesto and the AAP’s guarantee card, but more voters associate it with the AAP.

In the AAP’s Bhavnagar office, filled with young men and patriotic Bollywood numbers from loudspeakers in a van parked outside, Mahipal Singh Zala, city president, reels off numbers: “We have registered 24,000 families for distribution of our guarantee cards in Bhavnagar East, 19,000 in Bhavnagar West… and held 86 sabhas in this constituency.”

Unlike in Punjab, however, where voter anger against the older parties rose and spilled over to power its victory, here in Gujarat, the AAP’s lack of organisation is a formidable obstacle. This is especially so in Saurashtra where the BJP’s grip runs deep, anger against it is not the driving force it was in 2017, there is scepticism of a third force, and suspicion about the AAP’s Hindu credentials is fuelled by BJP-led social media campaigns.

In Paddhari taluka, Praveen Gadvi, a shop owner, says: “Neeche se shuruaat karni padti hai (you must begin from below). The third party doesn’t succeed in Gujarat – look what happened to Keshubhai, Shankarsinh Vaghela… Abhi dasvi paas nahin ki to graduate kaise banega (You have to pass class 10 to become a graduate).”

And Mayuri, a school teacher in Vanpari village who says that she will do “akad bakad bambe bo (toss a coin)” to decide who to vote for this time, rules out the AAP because: “A video came to my mobile – AAP says devi devtaaon ko mannaa nahin chahiye (AAP says you should not believe in gods and goddesses),” she says.

Raju Solanki is the AAP candidate for Bhavnagar west constituency. (Express Photo by Bhupendra Rana)

Modi’s Rajkot speech skirted the polarising issues — he spoke of BJP-led economic development and how his government has liberated the people from cumbersome rules and regulations. But on the ground, even in Saurashtra where the politics of communalisation doesn’t show as stark compared to the rest of Gujarat, BJP candidates are not leaving the divisiveness unsaid.

In a mohalla sabha, Bhavnagar candidate and Education Minister, Jitubhai Vaghani says: “Kashmir flag came down, Ma Bharati flag went up… Amit Bhai said PoK sara ka sara le ke rahenge (we will take the whole of PoK)… The Congress gave an affidavit in court saying that Lord Ram is a myth.”

First published on: 29-11-2022 at 21:39 IST
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