BJP has its plan ready to address crucial challenges on Modi’s homeground | assembly elections$Gujarat 2017 | Hindustan Times
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BJP has its plan ready to address crucial challenges on Modi’s homeground

With Gujarat witnessing the Patidar agitation and OBC unrest, BJP has to confront formidable tests in the state.

GujaratElection2017 Updated: Nov 12, 2017 07:42 IST
Prashant Jha
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah being garlanded during “Gujarat Gaurav Mahasammelan” in Ahmedabad.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah being garlanded during “Gujarat Gaurav Mahasammelan” in Ahmedabad.(PTI Photo)

Like all reserved constituencies for Scheduled Castes, the battle in Sabarkantha’s Idar assembly constituency is not primarily for Dalit votes. It is for the votes of ‘general castes’. And that is where Ramanlal Vora of the BJP has consistently outperformed his Congress rival.

But this time, in this pocket of North Gujarat, the hub of Gujarat’s Patidar agitation and OBC unrest, the BJP’s Dalit candidate will face the challenge of winning over precisely these castes. In a way, Idar sums up the BJP’s challenge in Gujarat — of substantial demographic blocks, for their own reasons, stitching an alliance against the party. This is most acute in North Gujarat, the home of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the BJP has a roadmap to overcome the challenge.

The fractured social coalition

Sample Idar’s demographics. Rough official estimates suggest it has 7,000 Thakors (an OBC group), 26,000 Muslims, 36,000 Dalits, and crucially, over 60,000 Patels — besides Kshatriyas and a range of other OBC groups. In 2012, Vora got a little over 90,000 votes, winning with a margin of 11,380 votes.

But if Ketan Patel’s mood is anything to go by, the ground is shifting. The owner of Jai Bajrang Bali Transport in Idar bazaar, he says business is down because of the Goods and Services Tax. Patel was also a part of the Patidar agitation for reservation back in 2015, and spent a week in prison. “We are not angry because we did not get reservation. We are angry because they dared fire on us. We have to teach BJP a lesson once.”

Vora often, a local journalist says, ignored Dalit complaints of atrocities against general castes, particularly Patels, to curry favour with them. “He now faces a situation where his community is angry with him, Muslims have always been hostile, Thakors have largely been with Congress, and the mainstay of his support, Patels, are moving away.”

The mood is not unique to Sabarkantha. In the historic district of Patan, near the main bus stand, Hindustan Times spoke to Magnesh Prajapati, who runs a paint shop. He complained about the media’s coverage of Modi (‘Is there no one else in this country?’); he said business was down (‘Notebandi, demonetisation, destroyed our incomes for months’), and felt that Congress was in the reckoning.

In Chanasma assembly segment’s Kamboi village, a group of Kshatriya men mocked BJP’s attempt to link Congress leader Ahmed Patel with terrorism. (‘They have suddenly remembered terrorism as elections draw closer’). And some distance away, Patel men launched a passionate attack on the BJP.

Jatinbhai Patel told HT, “BJP tells us if we don’t vote for them, it will mean Congress raj, which is equal to Muslim raj. But this time, even Muslim raj is better than BJP raj.”

Back in Patan bazaar, Binodbhai Patel runs a sweet shop. He remains loyal to the BJP, and explains, “Many of the voters you spoke to, Prajapatis, Thakors, the Kshatriya, are traditional Congress voters. The change is Patels have moved away and they add both critical numbers and shape opinions. That is our challenge.”

Dealing with discontent

In Ahmedabad’s Magnet Corporate Park, off the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar highway, the BJP has set up a media centre. There is an air of quiet confidence. The party’s strategy rests on many legs — the first of which is managing the Patel unrest. Bharat Pandya is the Gujarat BJP spokesperson. He says, “We have addressed Patel demand for reservations within the constitutional framework. BJP has given a model to the country — of protecting reservations for the backwards and Dalits and tribals, and giving benefits to the poor of other castes by introducing Economically Backward Classes category. This is stuck in the Supreme Court. Congress can’t give them anything.”

Two, Pandya argued, all respected Patidar organisations — he counted 38 — had said they were not with Hardik Patel and backed the BJP. “These organisations have done sewa, welfare work for decades.” Modi wooing the Swaminarayan sect, which wields tremendous power over Patels, was a step in this direction. Three, he pointed out, the BJP has 39 Patel MLAs, five MPs and two ministers from the community; its state president, deputy CM and ten ministers were Patels. “BJP has given the community space. Name me the tall Patel leaders in Congress.”

And finally, BJP will remind Patels of the Congress era and how its formula of KHAM — Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim— had sidelined them from the power structure. “Congress rule led to lawlessness, Muslim domination, attacks on them. They need to remember they came to us for security and Hindutva,” says another BJP leader.

But while trying to retain Patel support, BJP is also devising an insurance policy — of wooing smaller castes, numerically fewer, scattered, but collectively a significant chunk.

n a meeting with party workers in a North Gujarat district, BJP chief Amit Shah, a source said, named specific OBC sub-castes, and asked who represented them.

Gujarat has over 145 OBC groupings. He then asked local leaders to give vehicles to these representatives, and said, “Go to every family of your community, tell them BJP stands for their interests.” Pandya points out that there have been specific women, youth and OBC centric meetings in each district and constituency; and there has been a big tribal-specific campaign.

A hawk’s eye on Congress

The third element of the strategy is to wait for Congress ticket distribution. “There are many contenders within the party, and now Congress has promised a bunch of seats to Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor, and Jignesh Mewani. There will be rebels in each seat. Unlike the BJP’s disciplined structure, the Congress is anyway anarchic. They won’t be able to manage discontent,” says a top BJP leader from Delhi, deputed in Ahmedabad.

Back in Patan district, this is playing out. A prominent Thakor leader is seeking the Congress ticket, but Hardik has asked for the seat for a close Patel aide. “If Congress gives it to the Thakor candidate, we will work on the Patel votes; if they give it to the Patel candidate, their own Thakor votes will come to us.” Something similar is happening in Himmatnagar of Sabarkantha, which has close to 50,000 Patels and 60,000 Thakors. “If Congress gives the seat to a Patel, the BJP may put up a Thakor candidate. Their alliance cannot work on the ground.” Fourth, the BJP is banking on its organisation. Bharat Pandya asks, “Tell me, besides the Rahul Gandhi rallies, have you seen Congress activities on the ground? In our case, the national president is meeting party workers at the booth level, at the panna level; 50,000 of our party workers, vistaraks, have gone to each booth twice; we have mass contact programmes through which we will reach over a crore people.”

And finally, BJP is depending on Modi. A senior leader says, “In most states, including Bihar where we lost, our vote share of 2014 has broadly remained intact in assembly elections. This shows people’s continued faith in Modi. In Gujarat, we got close to 60% of the vote in 2014. You will see that repeat.”

Only December 18 will tell whether that prediction comes true. For now, the ground situation in Gujarat presents a formidable challenge to the BJP.