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Gujarat cooperatives are BJP’s political backbone

With around one-third of Gujarat’s population directly or indirectly linked to them, cooperative leaders say the challenge is to maintain a cordial relationship between the cooperative bodies and its beneficiaries.

GujaratElection2017 Updated: Dec 11, 2017 07:44 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
Hindustan Times, Rajkot/Mehsana
Gujarat election 2017,Gujarat elections,Gujarat polls
Cooperatives are key to Gujarat politics, with around one-third of the population directly or indirectly linked to them.(Satish Bate/HT File Photo)

On December 3, seated on the dais of Modi’s Rajkot rally was Jayantibhai Savjibhai Dhol, chairman of the Gondal Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC).

Soon after the rally, Dhol was back at the cooperative at Gondal, a Leuva Patidar stronghold, to oversee preparations for the procurement of groundnuts.

A BJP loyalist, Dhol is ensuring that farmers get good money, which means his influence over them remains intact. These farmers voted on Saturday.

“People come to APMC to sell their produce to private traders and get payment instantly,” he says, adding that it would take weeks at government procurement centres.

Gondal APMC is one of the largest in Gujarat with 1,200 traders. During procurement season, there is a 5-km-long beeline of trucks and tractors carrying groundnut, cotton, coriander leafs, garlic and other such articles.

Dhol and others are part of a strong cooperative movement of Gujarat, which benefitted the Congress for decades and is now being exploited by the BJP to its advantage.

The Mobilisation

Cooperatives are integral to Gujarat politics, with around one-third of the state’s population directly or indirectly linked to them.

In September, BJP chief Amit Shah met a group of 2,700-plus cooperative leaders in Ahmedabad, and asked them to reach out to people linked to their cooperatives. A senior BJP strategist revealed to HT that Shah has tasked cooperative leaders affiliated to the BJP to mobilise 10,000 votes in each constituency.

“Every vote matters,” he said. “We want to utilise every available resource to get the maximum votes.”

About 325 km from Gondal, four cooperative stalwarts of Gujarat went into a huddle at Mehsana in north Gujarat where the Patidar agitation is giving BJP sleepless nights.

Deputy chief minister Nitin Patel is locked in a close contest with Congress’ Jivabhai Patel there.

Among those present were Ajaybhai Patel, chairman, Gujarat State Cooperative Bank Chairman, Narhari Amin, chairman, Gujarat State Co-Operative Consumer Federation, Jethabhai Patel, chairman, Gujarat Cooperative Mill Marketing Federation and former Amul chairman Vipul Chaudhary.

“We asked cooperative leaders to circulate Gujarat’s success stories,” Amin, a former deputy chief minister, told HT. Amin, now vice-chairman of state planning commission, is a cooperative veteran who switched loyalty to the BJP in 2012.

His elder brother Ghanshyam Amin, chairman of Gujarat State Cooperative Union, followed suit in 2014 along with cooperative veterans from Sabarkantha, Baroda, Patan and other districts.

The BJP received another shot in the arm when Amul dairy chairman Ramsinh Parmar, a Congress MLA, crossed over on the eve of the Rajya Sabha election in August.

Gujarat has about 76,000 cooperative societies and the most influential of them covers sectors such as milk and livestock, farming, fisheries, consumer, irrigation, co-operative banks and APMCs.

The BJP’s domination is writ large. Of the 18 district cooperative banks in the state, the BJP controls 16. It has control over more than 80% of 91 APMCs of Gujarat, which deal directly with farmers.

Only two of the 24 directors in the Gujarat State Co-operative Bank (GSCB), the apex body of all DCBs, are not directly connected to the BJP.

Among the directors is also BJP chief Amit Shah.

The Challenge

Political parties have long exploited the chairmen and elected representatives of cooperative bodies to reap electoral harvest.

But it is not as easy as it was until a decade ago.

“People have become smart. The influence of cooperatives in Gujarat politics is waning,” said a senior cooperative leader associated with the BJP, requesting anonymity.

“With the rise of caste-based leaders such as Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore, it is difficult to convince people to vote according to our wishes.”

Cooperative leaders say the challenge is to maintain a cordial relationship between the cooperative bodies and its beneficiaries.

There is pressure to maintain profit margins and it often leaves people such as farmers and milkmen disappointed.

Cooperative leaders have to maintain a sense of impartiality for the sake of business and it is not easy for those not directly involved with politics to go out asking for votes.

Social scientists though claim cooperatives still have certain influence in rural pockets.

“It’s a patronage system,” argues Ghanhsyam Shah, a former fellow with the Indian Council of Social Science Research.

“The cooperatives lend support to beneficiaries throughout the year and expect support during elections.”

BJP general secretary Bhupendra Yadav, who is also the party’s in-charge for the state, too believes that Gujarat’s co-operative movement was a success story and worth emulating for economic empowerment of marginalised societies.

First Published: Dec 11, 2017 07:44 IST