The Gujarat contest this time isn't about Hindus versus Muslims. Not yet. The powerful Leuva Patel community’s rebellion against Narendra Modi has lent an unmistakable caste dimension to the ongoing campaign.
It’s another matter that the Leuva Patel (LP) bandwagon in Saurashtra is driven by Modi's erstwhile Hindutva foot soldiers under former CM Keshubhai Patel’s fledgling Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP): the VHP’s Praveen Togadia and former minister Gordhan Zadafia.
LPs make up 13-14% of Gujarat's population but their money power and education give them a clout disproportionate to their numbers. Adding to the sheen is the legacy of Sardar Patel who was an LP.
Also battling Modi in the region are elements in frontal organisations of the RSS and the Sadbhavana Manch of BJP MLA Kanu Kalsaria, Togadia’s friend and fellow doctor from the Ahir community.
Their challenge is predicated on a mosaic of issues: the LP’s seclusion from power by Modi and his development model, which they consider more hype than reality in water-starved Saurashtra.
Parivartan for them is about dislodging Modi — not per se the Hindutva plank. Their capacity to whip up religious passions had Modi abandon his politically expedient overtures to Muslims.
The CM reacted by returning to the basics by calling Delhi a sultanate and adding the word ‘mian’ to the name of Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel.
In failing simultaneously to field a single Muslim candidate, Modi lost the opportunity to acquire an inclusive veneer, howsoever tenuous, so critical for his prime ministerial aspirations.
The volte face is justified by some Modi supporters among the Sunni Bohra community. "He can't be PM without getting re-elected Gujarat CM," said a top businessman.
Can the strategy work? Or will he fall between the inherently contradictory planks to retain his Hindutva base and get Muslims on board to offset the loss of Leuva votes?
A section of the Bohras led by Ahmedabad's Zafar Sareshwala gained from Modi's pro-business approach. They are backing him. But Muslims from the lower economic strata boldly share the LP desire to oust Modi.
"Even the Muslims campaigning for the BJP will not vote for it," declared Jabbar Panja in Junagarh, Somnath.
The difference between the LP's 2007 alienation and their battle cry now is the option of Keshubhai's party. Modi's isolation is hard to miss in Saurashtra/Kutch that gave him 43 of the region's 58 seats.
The anti-LP caste backlash that had then helped him isn't tangible. His rivals have taken care to keep pastoral classes such as Ahirs and Kolis, besides Dalits from going to him on the rebound. Collectively, they far outnumber the LPs.
Lower and middle income voters across communities admit the going wasn't smooth for the BJP. "It's a GPP-Congress fight here," said Raju, a diamond cutter in Amreli's Dhari constituency.