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Elections 2019: BJP in Gujarat trying hard to respond to Modi ‘withdrawal’ symptom

By RK Misra*
Gujarat is the home state of two of the most powerful people in India today: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. Both were deeply rooted in state politics before graduating to centre-stage. Both leveraged their standing in the state to carve out a national niche for themselves. And both wield power with elan and an element of ruthlessness to achieve desired results.
Additionally, Shah remains a loyal shadow of Modi and his single most trusted lieutenant. This constitutes the biggest strength of BJP in Gujarat and also its most flawed weakness.
An outright winner in 2014, BJP bagged all the 26 seats in the state. It has nothing beyond this to gain in the 2019 elections here. It fights to repeat the feat. The Congress, on the other hand, has nothing to lose and everything to gain. The addition of even a single seat constitutes a win and is one less for its principal rival.
Gujarat has been the crucible for Indian political experiments for long. If Mahatma Gandhi’s famed civil disobedience movement or Dandi march started from Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad on March 12, 1930, fueled a fire that won independence 17 years later, a student agitation in 1973 lit a fuse that changed the face of Indian politics years later.
The Nav Nirman agitation grew out of a protest against 20 per cent increase in mess charges at the government run LD Engineering College in Ahmedabad and snowballed into a state-wide youth rebellion that not only led to the fall of the Chimanbhai Patel-led Congress government in 1974, but kick-started a chain of events that led to imposition of a National Emergency and subsequently the installation of the first non-congress government at the Centre in 1977. Ironically this non-Congress government in Delhi was headed by an old Congressman, Morarji Desai, also a Gujarati.
Politics in Gujarat, as elsewhere in the country, makes for principles of convenience. All the elements of the opposition which included the Jana Sangh and the PSP had successfully pooled their manpower to cast their lot with the 1974 student led Nav Nirman stir for the ouster of Congress chief minister Chimanbhai Patel alleging largescale corruption .
Sixteen years later, the same entities metamorphosing as BJP formed a coalition government in 1990 headed by the very same Chimanbhai Patel helming the Janata Dal!
National political developments cast their shadow in Gujarat as well. When VP Singh-led National Front government shored up in Delhi with the support of BJP and the left, collapsed, in Gujarat Patel forced out BJP and later merged his regional outfit back into the Congress.
It was only after the 1995 Vidhan Sabha elections in Gujarat that BJP came to power on its own strength with veteran Keshubhai Patel as its first chief minister. However the joy was short-lived as a rebellion by senior leader Shankersinh Vaghela brought down the Patel government. In the compromise struck by veteran party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Patel was replaced by Suresh Mehta as chief minister and the Gujarat BJP secretary Narendra Modi was sent out of the state.
The Mehta government did not last long and was subsequently dismissed, and after a stint of President’s rule, Vaghela came to power heading a regional party and with Congress support. He too did not last and in the state Assembly elections, BJP romped home bagging 117 seats with the Congress a distant 53 in a 182 member House. Patel was replaced by Narendra Modi as chief minister in 2001 and remained in the saddle up to 2014 when he left to take over as Prime Minister.
Modi till date remains the longest serving chief minister in the history of Gujarat though the record for the highest seat share stands in the name of chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki under whom the Congress bagged 149 of the total 182 seats in the state in the 1985 elections. It is now over 34 years since the Congress was last elected to power in Gujarat!
Modi may be BJP’s biggest strength but he is also its flawed weakness. Modi’s over 13 year rule in Gujarat saw his complete domination. He was the party and he was the government.
A cadre based party is a pyramidal structure with power flowing from the bottom to the top. Modi inverted this pyramid to turn it into a Congress like structure where the power flows from the top to the bottom. It is the same ‘Gujarat model’ which has been replicated at the Centre. Now it is the persona of Modi that rules with BJP taking a backseat while Amit Shah is the face that ensures complete Modi control over the party set up.
Gujarat has been suffering from Modi ‘withdrawal’ symptoms ever since he left for Delhi, though he keeps a hawk eye on the state through Shah and former bureaucrat K Kailashnathan who is the chief principal secretary to the chief minister. KK, as he is known, is a senior IAS officer who retired but has been re-employed. He was in the CMO under Modi and continues to be Modi’s eyes and ears in Gujarat.
Nothing grows under the banyan tree and chief ministers who followed after him have failed to make a mark. For one, Anandiben Patel who succeeded him as chief minister and Amit Shah, though close to Modi, are daggers drawn at each other within BJP.
Surprisingly, the Patidar unrest gained ground under a patidar chief minister and was finally the cause for her replacement by Vijay Rupani, who is a Shah camp follower though Nitin Patel who belongs to the Anandiben camp has been retained as deputy chief minister. Anandiben has already been moved over to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh as governor to ensure trouble free functioning for Rupani.
Caste politics still dominates the electoral matrix. And both the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress while mouthing platitudes play the caste card shamelessly. The dominant patidar or patel community has played a major role in bringing BJP to power in Gujarat.
It now works to bring down the same BJP. Ever since congress chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki enunciated the KHAM (Kashtriya, harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) caste configuration to create a winning combination to annex power sans Patidars, this community moved towards BJP and remained so until 2015.
Patels constitute 14 per cent of the total 63 million population of Gujarat and 21 per cent of its voter population. As of today, Gujarat BJP chief Jitu Vaghani is a Patel and so is Gujarat Congress chief Paresh Dhanani. The Anandiben Patel Cabinet in Gujarat which was felled by the Patidar stir had seven of its 24 ministers from the community. The previous Vidhan Sabha was made up of 47 Patidar legislators in a House of 182. The trend continues more or less on the same expected lines.
The community’s dominance notwithstanding, young Hardik Patel, who spearheaded the community’s agitation for reservation in government jobs and educational institutions, caught the imagination of the jobless youth. The statewide violence after the August 25, 2015 Patidar rally in Ahmedabad which left 14 Patel youth dead only stoked the fires.
Hardik’s arrest on sedition charges further added to his appeal turning him into a potent force against BJP. The results were quick to follow in the panchayat elections in December the same year. Though BJP managed to retain control of the six key municipal corporations-Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot, Surat, Jamnagar and Bhavnagar, its majority was considerably whittled down.
However, it was in the district and taluka panchayats that it fared very badly. Congress wrested 23 of the total 31 district panchayats and 132 of the total 230 taluka panchayats. In fact it swept the rural and semi-urban areas.
The 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections in Gujarat further highlighted the loosening grip of BJP. Amit Shah who had boasted of bagging 150 of the total 182 seats to set a new record found that its tally had fallen to 99, the lowest ever since Modi had come to power in 2001.
The Congress, on the other hand, had improved it’s tally to 77 with Rahul Gandhi leading from the front. The results also brought out the urban-rural divide. While the urban areas remained with BJP, the rural areas moved towards the Congress. Of the 55 seats in the four key cities of Ahmedabad, Vadodara ,Rajkot and Surat, BJP bagged 44 and the Congress only 11. In the rurban and rural space, of the total 127 seats BJP managed a mere 55 while Congress and its allies picked up 72.
Four demographic regions make up the state, Saurashtra-Kutch, North Gujarat, Central Gujarat and South Gujarat.
Saurashtra-Kutch accounts for 54 legislators. In 2012 BJP had won 35 in 2017 it lost 12 while Congress which had got 16 in 2012 won 30 five years later. This constituted a sizeable dent in the saffron bastion and was attributed to farm distress and Patidar and Dalit resentment.
The urban-rural divide was again stark in south Gujarat. BJP retained 15 of the 16 seat in Surat. In Bharuch, BJP won in urban areas bagging three of the five seats. It also retained its hold in rurban areas of Valsad and Navsari winning seven of the nine seats from these two districts. The Congress, on the other hand, did very well in the rural areas. BJP, however, fared well in Central Gujarat winning 21 of the 40 seats, getting four more than the Congress party’s 17 in 2012.
In North Gujarat, considered the cradle of the Patidar stir, Congress could improve its tally by only two seats to 23 while BJP notched up 30 seats.
If a simple extrapolation of the Vidhan Sabha results of 2017 is done to Lok Sabha seats, the Congress should be able to mop up nine of the 26 seats, but such simple calculations do not add up to anything beyond being broadly indicative.
As in the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections, so now, there is hardly any indication of Congress breaching BJP urban bastions. The threat to BJP is predominantly in the rural areas. And an analysis of the 2017 results has alerted BJP to this possibility.
No wonder, it has been at work engineering defections. Just before the 2017 Rajya Sabha elections,14 legislators had quit the Congress. Five of them were given BJP tickets but four of them lost while one just managed to scrape through.
Within the last six months again, Congress legislative ranks have been depleted by five defections, two of whom were immediately made cabinet ministers. This has been done with an idea of weaning away caste vote banks to impact the results of the ensuing Lok Sabha polls in Saurashtra and north Gujarat.
Upbeat after 2017, the Congress, particularly Rahul Gandhi, has been showing aggressive traits in seeking to beard the lion in its own den. The Congress recently held a CWC meeting followed by a public rally in Ahmedabad where Priyanka Gandhi, the party general secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh spoke.
For the Congress, reduced to zero last time, six seats would be a creditable show. And anything above it, a pole position for Rahul Gandhi in the heart of Modiland. Two former chief ministers of BJP stock, Suresh Mehta and Shankersinh Vaghela, however, give the Congress 10 and 12 seats respectively.
For BJP, though, Gujarat is Modi’s model state and his template for national development. Any breach in the bund would be a body blow to the duo and bad for their party’s morale as well!
---
*Senior Gujarat-based journalist. Blog: http://wordsmithsandnewsplumbers.blogspot.com/

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