As the BJP faces its stiffest electoral challenge in almost two decades in Gujarat in the backdrop of the Patidar agitation and Dalit unrest, its national president Amit Shah seems to have taken upon himself the task of ensuring the party’s victory in the high-stakes elections next year.
Shah, who purportedly told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he would win the 2017 elections if he was allowed to pick Anandiben Patel’s successor, is going all out to retain power in his home state.
Against a couple of visits in the past two years, the Navrangpura MLA has already toured the state on five occasions since August. He has covered a range of events from a tree plantation drive in his assembly constituency to delivering pep talk, twice so far, to the cadre since his close confidante Vijay Rupani took over as the chief minister on August 7.
On September 8, when Shah will address a party workers’ meet at Vyara in south Gujarat – his sixth visit in a month’s time – he will speak directly to booth level workers in Gujarat for the first time after becoming the party president.
“His constant presence and guidance infuse new energy and enthusiasm into the cadre,” Bharat Pandya, Gujarat BJP spokesperson, said.
On the same day in Surat, he along with Rupani will be felicitated by the Patidar community.
“With a new CM and a new team, the BJP under his guidance is going full throttle planning and strategising (for the 2017 polls),” Pandya added.
“20 varash thaya Sarkhej ma ane havey Naranpura ma. Pan hun kyarey pan samvedanshill dharasabhya rahiyo nathi… biji jimidariyo ma vayst rahi yo che (I represented Sarkhej for 20 years and now I represent Naranpura. But I have never been a sensitive MLA who is in touch with his constituents. I have remained busy with other responsibilities of the party,” Shah said at a function in Ahmedabad in August during his first public speech in two years.
It was a new Shah not only for his constituency, where the tree plantation event was organised by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation but also for party leaders as he assured them that he would meet them more often.
After becoming the party president in 2014, it was the first time that Shah – who was hardly seen in action in Gujarat when Anandiben Patel was the chief minister – addressed constituents. The same day he also inaugurated a medium and small scale enterprise event in Ahmedabad, again a first such government programme where he was present.
He flew down to Gujarat again on August 17 to attend the last rites of Swaminarayan sect guru Pramukh Swami. The next day he presided over the party’s meeting at its headquarters in Shree Kamalam in Gandhinagar. While PM Modi couldn’t attend the swearing-in ceremony of newly chosen CM Rupani on August 7, Shah made it a point that he was there.
Shah’s growing presence in the state coincides with the exit of Anandiben with whom he shares a frosty relationship.
“Shah did not happen to attend any AMC programme when Patel was the CM. Tree plantation was the first programme of a local body that he attended,” a BJP leader remarked.
At a party workers’ meet in December 2015, Anandiben had remarked, “I should keep my address short. You all must have been waiting for Amitbhai to speak as he is hardly seen in Gujarat.”
Shah’s shift in focus assumes significance given that the party is surrounded by a series of concerns just a year before the assembly elections. Besides fighting anti-incumbency which is looming large over the BJP that has ruled the state for 21 years, the party is also struggling to retain its key vote bank of Patidars who are up in arms against the government demanding OBC quota.
While the state has a new CM in Rupani who replaced beleaguered Anandiben after she failed to contain the Patidar agitation, another stir is brewing this time by Dalits who have vowed to give up skinning and sweeping jobs to bring an end to “atrocities” being inflicted on them.
The BJP’s vote share in the panchayat polls last year dropped from 50.26% in 2010 to 43.97%. Its hold over semi-urban and urban civic bodies also weakened during the period, helping revive a moribund Congress party in the state.
“For the BJP, winning the 2017 elections in Gujarat is very crucial. BJP’s performance in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will set the stage for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when Modi will be seeking a second term,” political analyst Achut Yagnik said.