This is an election of the sort Gujarat hasn’t seen since Narendra Modi first burst onto the scene in 2001. For the first time since then, he isn’t a candidate on the ballot paper in the state. While the BJP, which won all the 26 Lok Sabha seats in the state in 2014, is still seeking votes in the Prime Minister’s name, for the first time in a long time, Modi isn’t top of the mind for most of the state electorate either.
As The Sunday Express travels across Gujarat, from areas where the Patidar anger is now reduced to a footnote and places where the Dalits haven’t forgotten the Una flogging, to where the farmer woes are now aligned with a common national narrative, calculations across parties seem based on an old familiar: caste. It may still be a long way from when the Congress had it sealed with its KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formula, but having reduced the BJP to its lowest tally of 99 out of 182 seats since 1995, in the 2017 Assembly elections, and dealt a public humiliation to the BJP over a Rajya Sabha seat, the party hopes to make more progress.
That is, if it gets its act together. The Assembly high is already frittered away with the BJP wooing five of its 77 MLAs so far. In the run-up to the polls, the Congress failed to strike any alliances, not even with old ally NCP, while talks with the Bharatiya Tribal Party’s Chhotu Vasava for Bharuch didn’t pan out.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi did all of five rallies in the state, that votes on April 23, mostly talking about the Rafale deal and accusing the BJP of protecting rich bank defaulters. Modi has held six so far and is scheduled to do one more in Patan on Sunday. At his meeting in Amreli on April 18, an emotional PM urged people to “gift 26 lotuses” to him as he was “their man in Delhi”.
Patidars, and others
On the main street of Chhattar village in Kalawad taluka of Jamnagar district, a shop running out of an extended home is also distributing BJP paraphernalia these days. Owner and sarpanch Jaisukh Tada, a Leuva Patel, says that in 2015, he had himself driven villagers in his SUV to a Hardik Patel rally at the height of the Patidar agitation. “I was proud that this boy was out to do something for my community… But we got to know soon enough that he was a money-minded Congressman,” says Tada. Click here for more election news
The anger over Hardik having joined hands with the Congress runs high, with little rancour over the fact that he is unable to contest because of conviction in a case related to the agitation.
Of the 15 Congress MLAs who had won (13 in Saurashtra and two in north Gujarat) on the strength of that anger in 2017, three are now with the BJP. These three Assembly seats, along with Manavadar which had fallen vacant after the Congress MLA defected to BJP will see bypolls simultaneously with the Lok Sabha on April 23. One by-election was held on December 20, re-electing Kunvarji Bavaliya, a Congress MLA who too had joined BJP in July last year.
One of these seats is Unjha, in which Modi’s native village Vadnagar falls. The Mehsana Lok Sabha seat itself includes both Modi’s and Amit Shah’s native villages. Hardik is barred to campaign in Mehsana district by the court.
While this means that the BJP is now set to earn back a chunk of its traditional Patidar votes, the Congress will lose more OBC support due to Radhanpur MLA and Thakor Sena leader Alpesh Thakor quitting the party along with two other MLAs, citing “injustice to the community”. The swing of Patidar and OBC votes is set to reflect in Banaskantha, Patan, Mehsana and Sabarkantha seats in north Gujarat.
Vasava, whose vote was decisive in Congress leader Ahmed Patel’s win in the Rajya Sabha election, kept waiting for the party to make up its mind on an alliance. Not just Bharuch, his party’s vote base among tribals could cost the Congress dear in the Lok Sabha seats of Chhota Udepur, Bardoli and Navsari in central and south Gujarat. Tribals make up 15 per cent of the population in the state.
Caste, local issues in focus
Gujarat will see a first election in 18 years where PM Modi is not a candidate. Unlike 2014, caste calculations are expected to dominate the political discourse. While Modi is expecting his home state to repeat its performance of 2014, the Congress, having reduced the BJP to 99 seats in the 2017 Assembly polls, its lowest since 1995, it will hope to do better.
Spokesperson Raju Dhruv says the Patidars, Kolis, as well as other voters’ groups will favour the BJP. “It is true that Patidars were misled for sometime, but this community has always put the nation first. They have faith in the work being done by PM Modi and Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani. Similarly, Kolis will not be swayed by the false propaganda of the Congress.”
Dhandhuka under Surendranagar parliamentary seat is considered the “gateway” to Saurashtra, which has been struggling with drought. Most of the 51 talukas across 11 districts declared drought hit by the state government are in the Saurashtra-Kutch region. However, the theme of the campaign of sitting Congress MLA from Limdi, Somabhai Patel, one of the tallest Koli leaders in Gujarat, is his caste. Somabhai is contesting from Surendranagar.
An old BJP veteran, he taps into the anti-lower caste sentiments against the BJP, asking for votes for the Congress “so that we don’t lose our azaadi”. “If by mistake Modi comes back, you will lose your right to vote. I say this with complete confidence. The Constitution made by Babasaheb will be thrown into the sea.”
Kolis form the largest OBC group in Gujarat, at 20 per cent of the population, and dominate Surendranagar, Bhavnagar and Junagadh seats in Saurashtra and Navsari in south Gujarat.
In Navsari, the Kolis had demanded the BJP nominate one of them instead of sitting MP C R Patil. Bavaliya, one of the tallest Koli leaders in the state had to intervene after the BJP re-named Patil. The Congress fancies its chances with its candidate Dharmesh Patel, a Koli.
Says Somabhai, “The Koli samaj will not vote for the BJP… The party does not have good people and so it is breaking the Congress. It is afraid 33 per cent of its own MLAs will leave, so they are luring Congress MLAs.”
Soon after Bavaliya defected to the BJP in July last year, he was made a minister of cabinet rank by the ruling party. Bavaliya, who is also the national president of the Akhil Bharatiya Koli Samaj, says the BJP has sent a strong message to Kolis by making him minister, and this would help the party retain the Koli-dominated Bhavnagar, Junagadh and Surendranagar seats. “The BJP has made the voice of Kolis heard in government decisions,” he says.
On the caste balance, the BJP also has the support of the powerful OBC group Chaudharys of north Gujarat, who control the dairy industry. The influential leaders among them include former Gujarat minister Shankar Chaudhary, who chairs Banas Dairy, that is said to be Asia’s largest milk union.
Both the Congress and BJP have tapped into the dairy vote bank — the Congress’s Parthi Bhatol once headed the Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, which markets the Amul brand, while the BJP’s Parbat Patel (an MoS in the Rupani government) is a director in Banas Dairy.
Over at Navagam village in Surendranagar, the Kolis claim they have been suppressed for decades by the Bharwads, the traditional cattle-rearing community who are also OBCs.
Mahendrabhai Magvania, a Chunvaliya Koli and husband of sarpanch Jhiniben, is nursing a broken leg since he was attacked by the Bharwads some eight months back for his wife standing for sarpanch elections. The Kolis say the Bharwads try to take possession of their land by letting lose their cattle to graze on it. The Bharwads say they have had to leave the village on account of the pushback by Kolis.
Still, Mahendrabhai says, his vote is for Modi, irrespective of who the BJP candidate is. “Modi has given us grants, built roads, deepened ponds, installed streetlights,” he says.
But near the village square, four elderly men smoking beedis say it is “doctorsaheb (BJP candidate Mahendra Munjpara)” that they are voting for, due to his caste. Samadbhai Magvaniya claims Modi does not matter. As does Navganbhai Kashibhai, puffing away. “Modi hoy ke koi bhi hoy, aapda samaaj no manas ne j vote apaay (Be it Modi or anyone, vote will go to the one from our community).”
The Dalit factor
On the way to Navagam village, stands a memorial for three Dalit boys killed in a clash with police in 2012. The three had been killed after the Dalits crowded the Thangadh police station to lodge a complaint about an altercation with Bharwads at the town fair. An inquiry report is still not out.
The parents of the deceased have been agitating for justice, and the father of one of the deceased, Valji Rathod, is now contesting from Gandhinagar as an Independent against Amit Shah. “We have been fighting for justice for so many years with no result,” he told The Sunday Express while filing his nomination.
Hoping to tap into the Dalit anger, simmering since the Una incident when members of the community were publicly flogged, the Congress has fielded its Una MLA Punja Vansh against BJP sitting MP Rajesh Chudasama from Junagadh. Dalits constitute nearly 7 per cent of the population in Gujarat.
In March, the Una Dalits sat on a week-long protest demanding land promised to them after the flogging. But officials cited the Model Code of Conduct to say their hands were tied.
A group of Dalits gathered at the Ambedkar Chowk in Upleta in Porbandar say it’s price rise that has “finished” them during the Modi reign. “For the poor like us, the Congress is good. Parties work only for industrialists, those who work for the people will win,” says Gopal Katariya, who provides masonry services.
Bullet train vs relief
In Vadodara, Valsad, Surat and Navsari districts, work is on on the bullet train project. The National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) along with the Gujarat government has to acquire 612 hectares in the state. But officials have been struggling to convince farmers to part with their land.
Farmers, mainly from south Gujarat, had organised under the Gujarat Khedut Samaj to move the high court against the amendment to the 2013 land acquisition law by the state government overruling the requirement of social impact assessment. The BJP government had filed affidavits and begun awarding compensation as per market value to those farmers consenting to part with their land.
But while the Modi government projects the Mumbai-Ahmedabad train, to run at speeds up to 320 kmph, as its showpiece project, the BJP makes no mention of it in its rallies.
Meanwhile, BJP sitting MPs K C Patel of Valsad and Prabhu Vasava of Bardoli have been questioned by people at their meetings, including over the land acquisition for the Par-Tapi-Narmada river linking project.
All politicians have been barred entry for campaigning in the Kshatriya-dominated Shishang village in the Jamnagar Lok Sabha seat. “We allowed you only because you are from the media,” says Ashoksinh Jadeja, 53, who owns 80 bighas and claims to have taken voluntary retirement as head constable because he was “tired of the BJP”.
The Modi government’s latest farmer scheme PM-KISAN, unveiled just before the polls, doesn’t lure him either. Questioning the
Rs 6,000 per annum assistance it awards, Jadeja says, “Of the Rs 2,000 first installment, I had to spend Rs 400 on paperwork to get myself enlisted as a beneficiary.” Noting that theirs used to be a BJP village, he adds, “They took away roti from my plate. Why should I vote for the BJP?”
Hardevsinh Jadeja, who is a Congress supporter, says he is ready to face action for speaking out against the BJP government. “They can book me for rashtradroh (sedition). Let them.”
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has been talking about an exclusive farmers’ budget and promising not to imprison anyone for loan default. Modi highlighted the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and the Kisan credit card.
But others warn that the farmer anger could translate into total “nirasta (disinterest)” for the elections, including towards the Congress. “What is the use of voting? There is no democracy left,” says Shishang’s Hardevsinh who is a farmer and has been a Congress supporter since “Rajiv Gandhi’s time”.
At a paan shop in Upleta, a farmer who is part of a group gathered at a shop at the end of the day for their daily dose of phaaki (a mixture of tobacco, betel nut and lime paste), says they don’t need anything from the government. A Patidar, he is also a government teacher and doesn’t want to identify himself. “Just give us water,” he says. “We don’t want any loan or insurance scheme. We will produce everything the country needs… except rice maybe.”
Where is the water?
That water could change many a fortune is evident across the 600-km stretch in Saurashtra that The Sunday Express travelled through. Barring sporadic green patches of bajra, cabbage, beans, onion and fodder fields, the region and its local rivers are completely parched.
The semi-arid region has no perennial river and following a poor monsoon, a majority of dams are dry this summer. Government supplies Narmada water to farmers in Surendranagar, Morbi, Botad and Bhavnagar districts while major dams like Shetrunji and Bhadar-I help irrigate fields in a few dozen other villages. But large parts of the region that remain dependent on groundwater sources are struggling.
Under its ambitious Saurashtra Narmada Avataran Irrigation scheme, the state government is laying giant pipelines to connect 115 dams of Saurashtra with canals of Narmada dam. But this year, not many of the 115 have received water. As a drought relief measure, the state government has paid farmers Rs 5,300-Rs 6,800 per hectare as input subsidy.
But angry farmers in Rajkot, Devbhoomi Dwarka etc have staged protests alleging arbitrariness by insurance companies in settlement of insurance claims for crop loss.
But it’s all about Balakot
Rajesh Gohil, Congress MLA from Dhandhuka, insists, “Just by doing air strikes, and swaying people emotionally, the BJP cannot win.” He accuses the BJP of wooing the urban areas by “communalising”, by accusing the Congress of “speaking the language of Pakistan”.
BJP top campaigners, including Modi, Amit Shah and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, have, in different ways, played on the Pulwama-Balakot events to emphasise on the “tough Modi-led government”, seeking votes in the name of “national security”.
At Patidar village Chhattar, sarpanch Jaisukh Tada says “the air strikes will help the BJP”. Despite the anger against Hardik Patel, despite the lingering hope for the quota movement, he says, “First comes the nation. If the country is safe, only then we are safe.” However, he laments non-availability of irrigation water and damage to crops by animals.
BJP spokesperson Dhruv claims Modi is set to get the Muslim vote too. “They have benefited from the communal harmony and law and order during Modi’s reign. The Congress always treated Muslims as a vote bank and thus the community was left behind,” he says.
The Pulwama/Balakot narrative forced the Congress to return to the drawing board. The party, which was to hold its working committee meeting in Gujarat after 60 years on February 28, had to reschedule it as well as Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s first rally as general secretary.
But the BJP has used another “national pride” narrative sparingly. On April 19, campaigning in Chhota Udepur, the constituency where the Statue of Unity is situated, Amit Shah made no mention of it. In 2017, the Assembly seat of Nandod was won by the Congress even as the statue was being readied.
Referring to Modi’s charge on April 18 that none of the Congress leaders had visited this architectural marvel of his government, Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi says, “All they are doing is politicising Sardar Patel. Had they really been concerned about him, they would have finished the Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada by building all the minor canals.”
He adds that May 23 would mark a victory for the Congress manifesto, winning it the support of all castes and communities. “We have announced a Krishi budget and farmers belong to all communities.”