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Not Patidar anger, but rural distress drove Saurashtra voters against BJP, as farmers "rejected" Hindutva rhetoric

Christophe Jaffrelot
By Our Representative
The Gujarat elections may be over, but the dilemma whether “angry” Patidar community – forming 12% of Gujarat – voted against the BJP remains strong.Young Patidar leader Hardik Patel, in a state of disbelief, says, this happened because the Electronic Voting Machines were tampered with, insisting, had it been a free and fair polls, the BJP’s tally couldn’t be more than 80-82, others do not seem to agree instead of 99 in a house of 182.
The dilemma is particularly widespread because Patidars – though Gujarat’s most occupationally diversified community, which, even as having rural roots, has moved in large numbers to the urban areas – showed up in large numbers in their pre-poll rallies led by Hardik, influenced by issues nagging them such as unemployment, Goods and Services Tax (GST), and demonetization.
One of the most acclaimed political scientists and South Asia specialist Christophe Jaffrelot, a research director at CERI, Sciences Po (a French social sciences institute in Paris), who is also professor at the King’s College India Institute, London, thinks that the “identity politics” ultimately made Patidars and other middle classes to vote the for the BJP.
Jaffrelot says, “Probably till the last two or three weeks – till Modi jumped in – merchants and traders of Surat were ready to vote against the BJP or abstain… Modi stormed Gujarat and articulated the traditional Gujarati version of Hindu nationalist rhetoric.”
The top scholar adds, Modi “claimed that he is the son of the soil while Rahul Gandhi was an outsider who could not speak the language and Manmohan Singh the interlocutor of Pakistanis.” The results show that “such things and Gujarati asmita (pride) in particular are still working.”
Indeed, the figures show that, of the 77 seats the Congress could win, it got just four seats of the 36 in the four major cities – all in Ahmedabad, getting a big zero in the rest of the three, Vadodara, Surat and Rajkot. Even in Surat’s Patidar-dominated Choryasi, the BJP won with a whopping margin of over 40,000 votes.
In rural areas, things were, no doubt, different. But even here, insists farmers’ leader Sagar Rabari, who led a 3,500-long motorbike yatra across Gujarat ahead of the elections, “Patidars in the rural areas voted against the BJP not because of the Hardik Patel factor, but because of the rural distress that nagged them”.
Sagar Rabari
In an incisive analysis, Rabari – who heads Khedut Samaj Gujarat (KSG), which has led several successful battles forcing the state government to come on its knees – says, the degree of rural distress differed region-wise – high in Saurashtra-Kutch, medium in North Gujarat, and not much in South and Central Gujarat.
Thus, says Rabari, lack of availability of water for irrigation to farmers for irrigation, despite 22 years of BJP rule, played a “major role” in voters’ anger against the saffron party in rural Saurashtra.
“Saurashtra farmers are still dependent on scarce rainfall”, Rabari says, adding, “No other source of water for irrigation in a big is still available for the region. The situation got accentuated as the farmers did not get remunerative price for their produce, failed to get the insurance money for crop failure, and suffered because of demonetization.”
Insisting that as a result of all this “many farmers were forced to commit suicide in the region”, Rabari says, this was one region where the effort by the saffron party to use “caste and religion failed to succeed in influencing the electorate.”
“In North Gujarat”, says Rabari, Narmada waters was available to some extent for irrigation, as a result of which farming did not remain as unremunerative as in Saurashtra, and farmers “saved” their crop, despite the high costs of groundwater irrigation. “Clearly, in North Gujarat, the ruling BJP did suffer, but not as much as in Saurashtra”, he underlines.
By sharp contrast, says Rabari, in Central and South Gujarat, “farmers do not have to depend on the vagaries of nature for irrigation, water is available in huge quantity, and farmers are able to get remunerative price for their cash crops, such as tobacco, banana, sugarcane, etc., thanks to a strong cooperative movement.”
Noting that the farmers in this region are not “dependent on government for irrigation”, Rabari says, here they failed to “understand the real face of the BJP’s anti-farmer policies”, which include the “draconian pro-industry” Gujarat land acquisition Act.

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