Last week, when a Patidar farmer in a north Gujarat village remarked, “This time anything can happen,” it made me sit up. He wasn’t prepared to say that the Congress would win. Only that it was not going to be a walkover for the BJP.
After 22 years in power, a certain amount of dissatisfaction with the ruling party is not unusual, even in ‘Narendra Modi’s Gujarat’. But many Patidars — particularly the Kadwa Patels, the sub-group to which Hardik Patel belongs — have expressed anger across villages in Mehsana district, the epicentre of the Patidar agitation two years ago.
Incidentally, the development in these villages is impressive, with functioning toilets installed in the last two years, an active all-women panchayat in a village I visited, and good roads even in rural areas.
The Patidar anger is not so much about their unmet demand for reservations in education and jobs — many, in fact, want caste-based reservations abolished and want them linked to economic criteria — but against “BJP arrogance”. Their anger is against the BJP, not against Modi.
Many are waiting to see the rabbit Modi pulls out of the hat. The BJP’s own decisions betray a lack of confidence, the latest being the very visible inner-party dissent that has broken out with the distribution of tickets. BJP MP from Patan Liladhar Vaghela has even threatened to resign if his son is left out of the candidates’ list.
It is also evident that the anger against the BJP is sectional, not universal, among the Patidars, Thakors and Dalits. It is prevalent with the urban middle class still rooting for the party, with their ‘Hindu sentiment’ intact. And as the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti’s (PAAS) open squabble with the Congress reportedly over not being consulted before ticket allocation points to, an electoral alliance with the ‘enemy’s enemy’ is far from being stitched up and in the bag. Hardik Patel even cancelled a scheduled rally at Gondal near Rajkot on Monday, where he was thought to have announced a PAAS-Congress electoral tie-up.
So, can the Congress, in all the ongoing flux and chaos, actually upset the BJP applecart? After all, the popular vote difference between the BJP and the Congress in the last three elections was around 10%, and much more in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
Wheels Within Wheels
While most concede that Rahul Gandhi is ‘doing better’, with one of his savvy moves has been to reach out to the three popular ‘youth figures’ — Hardik Patel (Patidar), Alpesh Thakor (OBC) and Jignesh Mevani (Dalit) —it is not as if the emaciated Congress has suddenly acquired organisational muscle.
In contrast, the BJP is flush with money and workers, has a well-oiled poll machinery, and — despite internal heartburn over tickets — a no holds barred approach to elections. The Congress is also handicapped by its state leaders, who are compromised because of their business interests and silent links with the BJP.
Its other challenges include how to convert voter-unhappiness towards the ruling dispensation into actual votes, and to get the disaffected to voting booths. But, above all, its biggest challenge is to counter the phenomenon called Narendra Modi.
It is interesting that even the Patidars, who spew anger against the BJP, express no love for the Congress. While many of them say they will go by what Hardik Patel tells them — a vote against the BJP means a vote for the Congress, since the people of Gujarat are not likely to waste their vote on smaller parties — they do not want him to join the Congress the way Alpesh Thakor has. The fear of a split in the Patidar leadership — with PAAS leader Dinesh Bhambani’s supporters breaking out into protests outside Gujarat Congress chief Bharatsinh Solanki’s residence on Sunday — may have played a role in Hardik putting up a more careful front in terms of any Congress alliance.
Could this all mean that the Patidars are waiting for Modi to make amends for the ‘atrocities’ against their community over the last two years? The backbone of the BJP’s support since the 1980s, Patidars comprise 15-18% of Gujarat’s population. They have been chafing against what they see as a loss of political and economic power, with the OBCs 'outshining' them thanks to reservations.
The Congress recipe is to consolidate its old KHAM — Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim — base, which brought it to power in the 1980s. And more Thakors and Dalits are looking at the party this time than in the last two elections. The party has been hoping to supplement this with the ‘P’ (Patidar) factor.
Calls for an Encore?
Many expect Modi to make an emotional pitch about Gujarati pride being at stake at the final lap of the campaign. Elections in India, at the end of the day, are all about emotion. Given the invincibility that surrounds Modi, for all the problems over the unplanned implementation of demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST), the ensuing loss of jobs, unrest among trader and farmers’ distress, most people do not doubt his intentions.
Gujarat 2017, then, is about a growing voter unhappiness with the BJP and Modi’s ability to mollify the disaffected groups, particularly the Patidars.
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