Leuva Patels, a backbone of BJP's uninterrupted 18 years rule in Gujarat, are giving sleepless nights to the ruling party on which way they will go in assembly elections in Saurashtra this time after their caste's tallest leader Keshubhai Patel launched his political outfit.
Numerically-strong Patel community, having around 18 per cent population in the state, has rallied behind BJP in the last two decades, giving the party the edge over its opponents but this time they are divided on the lines of their sub-castes --Leuva and Kadvas.
The Leuva sub-caste, which 83-year-old Keshubhai Patel, represents, has in the run up to the elections at regular intervals organised huge caste meetings to assert their voice as they allege they have been marginalised in last 10 years of Modi rule.
"The question is to which political party this powerful sub-caste will lend its support?. Will they stay with BJP or will they go to GPP?", said political scientist Dinesh Shukla.
Out of 182 seats in the state assembly, Saurashtra region consists of 54 seats spread across 7 districts of Bhavnagar, Amreli, Junagadh, Jamnagar, Porbandar, Surendranagar and Rajkot. So, it is always said that whichever party dominates in Saurashtra rules the state, he added.
In the past two assembly elections, BJP under Modi has made Saurashtra a bastion for the party. BJP had won 39 seats in 2002 and in 2007 despite a sulking Keshubhai staying away from the campaign, the party had won an overwhelming 43 seats here.
But 2012 could be a different story for Modi as Keshubhai's party Gujarat Parivartan Party is also in the fray.
"GPP has only one point agenda: remove Modi. And Keshubhai is claiming that GPP is the real BJP, but in fact GPP is party of Leuva Patels," Shukla added.
"Though Patel consist of both Kadva and Leuvas... the former have remained with BJP and it is yet to see which side Leuvas are tilting to," Shukla further said.
To make Leuva Patels' tilt away from Modi, Keshubhai got tactical support from none other than an epicentre of Leuva Patel community’s religious faith, Khodal Dham, promoted by one Naresh Patel, a proposed temple of community deity Khodal Mata, in Rajkot which has now become a nerve centre of a strong anti-Modi undercurrent among the caste members.
Naresh Patel, who is considered a rising star of the Leuva Patels, is in the forefront to galvanize his community’s support for ‘Bapa’ (father), as Keshubhai is fondly called.
Both Congress and BJP know the importance of Leuvas in Saurashtra and hence both parties have liberally given tickets to candidates representing this community.
In 2007, BJP had given tickets to 13 Leuva candidates and Congress fielded 14. A total of 29 Leuva candidates were in the fray. This time, BJP has given tickets to 14, where Congress has fielded 11 candidates.
BJP has given tickets to Leuva candidates on Rajkot South, Jasdan, Jetpur, Jamnagar Rural, Keshod, Lathi, Amreli, Dhari, Visavadar, Botad, Gariadhar, Savarkundla and Bhavnagar seats.
Congress has fielded Leuva Patels on Rajkot Sought, Jetpur, Dhoraji, Jamnagar Rural, Keshod, Lathi, Amreli, Dhari, Gariadhar, Savarkundla and Bhavnagar.
"Keshubhai very well knows that at best his party GPP cannot win more than 5 seats in Saurashtra. But it has the potential to damage BJP’s prospects on around 15 other seats," says retired political science professor of Gujarat University Siddharth Bhatt.
A study conducted by a small team of students of School of Political Science, Gujarat University, has concluded GPP will damage the vote-share of BJP in Saurashtra.
Modi, who is considered a sharp poll strategist himself, seems to have realised this element and in a major U-turn to his successful formula of not giving tickets to sitting MLAs adopted in 2007 has renominated 41 sitting MLAs in this elections in the region largely due to fear that they will defect to Keshubhai's party.
BJP’s MP and cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu had put his party in a fix over his diatribes against Keshubhai.
Sidhu had while addressing a rally in Visavadar, a bastion of Keshubhai recently, taken a dig Keshubhai by terming him an "old man" and a "traitor" who left the party and revolted against it.
Political pundits are considering this as a "shot in arm" for GPP if they can capitalise on this harsh criticism of ‘Bapa’ who is respected across the region.
"This is the moment for GPP to turn all Leuva Patel voters into the party’s favour and convert this into a winning formula just as Modi had done in the past pouncing on Congress chief Sonia Gandhi's words like ‘maut ka saudagar’," said one political observer.
Whether Bapa, GPP and Congress collectively succeed in channeling Leuva Patel votes against Modi or not is the lone point that December 20 counting of votes will tell.