More than her resignation, it was Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel’s continuation in office that the Congress was banking upon for the revival of its political fortunes in the state after almost two decades.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) move to replace Anandiben about one-and-a-half-year ahead of the assembly elections has upset the Congress calculation to some extent. The opposition party wanted Anandiben to continue and strengthen the anti-incumbency factor against the ruling BJP.
“That would have been an ideal situation for us,” a Congress strategist said. “Her brutal handling of the Patidar agitation, massive corruption apart from the growing unrest among Dalits over atrocities across the state had given us a clear edge over the BJP ahead of December 2017 elections.”
Among the frontrunners to replace Anandiben are state BJP chief Vijay Rupani and senior minister Nitin Patel. While Rupani is a Jain leader, Nitin Patel is an influential Patidar from north Gujarat.
Though the move might negate the anti-incumbency against the BJP to some extent, Congress leaders are hopeful that the tide has already turned against the ruling party and any change at the top cannot save it from an imminent defeat.
“BJP days are numbered. Any change of face will not help them,” senior Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia said.
Congress general secretary in-charge of Gujarat Gurudas Kamat said Anandiben’s resignation was “long overdue” and the move is a clear indication of the BJP’s “sure defeat” in 2017 elections.
The Congress’ optimism stems from the growing disillusionment of Patidars and the Dalits with the BJP. The Patidars’ agitation over reservation and the recent outrage over the thrashing of four Dalits for skinning of a dead cow at Una in Gir Somnath district put Anandiben and the BJP on a mat.
The BJP is facing the heat not only in Gujarat but across the country, especially in the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh that goes to polls in March next year.
Out of power in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah for the past 21 years, the Congress is drawing up a comprehensive campaign strategy to dethrone the ruling party in the upcoming polls.
Chhabildas Mehta was the last Congress CM from 1994-1995. From 1998, the BJP has been in power in the state for the past 18 years, of which Modi ruled for 12.
For its part, the Congress party has been making the right moves. To woo the Patidars, the opposition party has promised 20% reservation for the economically backward classes among the upper castes.
The BJP government tried to placate the Patidars by announcing 10% reservation for EBCs in May this year following a nine-month long sustained agitation led by Hardik Patel. However, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) rejected it.
Among the other slew of appeasement moves, the Congress appointed Hasmukh Desai, a Patidar, as president of its Surat city unit. Out of the 60 organisational posts in Surat city, Patidars have bagged more than 25.
It named Jyotiben Sojitra, also a Patidar, as the president of its women’s wing of Surat. More than 12 lakh Patidars, hailing from different districts in Saurashtra and north Gujarat, live in Surat and work in diamond, textile and other industries.
The Congress is also buoyed by its impressive performance in the local bodies’ elections in rural areas in December last year when it won 21 of the 31 district panchayats.
The alleged atrocities on Dalits will be another key poll issue and the Congress will seek to corner the BJP on Una and other similar incidents across the state.
But the worry for the Congress is the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as a third political force in the state. The AAP has declared that it will contest all the 182 assembly seats in the 2017 polls.
Delhi chief minister and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal has already sounded the poll bugle in the state with a two-day tour on July 9-10 followed by his visit to Una to meet the victims and their family members on July 22.
Kejriwal and other AAP leaders are hopeful that Hardik Patel will join and campaign for their party in the upcoming polls.
Congress leaders, however, reject the suggestion and claim that their party is the “natural alternative” to the BJP.
“Politics in Gujarat is bipolar in nature. Our party is the natural alternative to the BJP. The AAP will remain a small player in the 2017 polls,” Modhwadia said.