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Gujarat elections: PM Modi’s BJP banks on OBC votes to counter Patidar rebellion

OBCs, who account for over 40% of Gujarat’s population (more than three times that of the Patidars) are apprehensive of sharing reservation benefits with affluent community.

assembly elections Updated: Dec 06, 2017 07:35 IST
Kumar Uttam
Kumar Uttam
Hindustan Times, Rajkot/Jamnagar/Dwarka
Gujarat Assembly Election 2017,BJP,Patidar
Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti convenor Hardik Patel meeting with his supporters during "Jankranti Maharally" in Surat on Sunday.(PTI Photo)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is convinced Other Backward Classes or OBCs hold the key to it retaining Gujarat, a state it has governed for the past 22 years.

The realisation has come even as the party faces what some experts see as its toughest challenge in the state in two decades: an alliance of the economically dominant Patidar community with the Congress, which is also banking on support from Dalits; farmers hard-hit by the agrarian crisis; and small traders upset at the prospect of having to pay tax under the new Goods and Services Tax regime.

The Patidars were once supporters of the BJP, but the primarily agrarian community is seeing its fortunes fade (as, indeed, are dominant agrarian communities across India), and wants reservation (anamat in local lingo) for government jobs and in colleges. The Patidars account for around 12% of Gujarat’s population and could influence the outcome in around 60 of the 182 assembly constituencies in the state.

The Congress has backed the Patidar demand, although its way of facilitating the quota without falling afoul of a Supreme Court ruling that caps reservations at 50% could yet fail legal scrutiny.

Sentiments in the Patidar community are running high. Scars of a violent police crackdown on young Patidar agitators in 2015 are still fresh in the minds of the seven elderly Patidars this writer encounters in Jabalpur village in Tankara assembly constituency of Morbi district. “We have to teach the BJP a lesson,” one says. The others agree.

“Is it a crime to ask for better education and employment prospects?” another asks.

But the equation isn’t a straightforward one and the BJP plans to leverage that.

Other backward communities are apprehensive – the fear of sharing reservation benefits with the affluent community is palpable among the socially and economically backwards of Gujarat.

“Aren’t they (Patidar) well off? They have business, land and everything. Why should they limit the scope for our kids? If Patidars get reservation benefits, they will corner most of the benefits, leaving nothing for our sons and daughters,” says Devji Bhai of Mokhana village in Jamnagar Rural assembly constituency.

He is an Ahir, or a Yadav equivalent of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The community has sizeable presence in Jamnagar and Dwarka, the fabled city of Lord Krishna. The sentiment reverberates in several parts of this region -- louder at some, subtle at many.

In Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, a consolidation of the backward communities did wonders for the BJP – the country’s most populous state that it won with a three-fourth majority.

The arithmetic

OBCs account for over 40% of Gujarat’s population, more than three times that of the Patidars. The backward classes have been almost equally divided between the BJP and the Congress in past elections. This election could be different, say experts, especially if their fear tilts the balance in favour of the BJP even by few counts.

The electoral gains would be much more than the loss that Patidars could inflict.

Between 2002 and 2012, the BJP’s vote share ranged between 47.9% and 49.8% and it happened with near-total support from Patidars, besides other communities.

“Patidars, who brought the BJP to power in 1995, grudge that influence of OBC increased at their cost under Modi,” says Kaushik Mehta, editor of Rajkot-based Gujarati daily Phulchhab.

The OBCs’ list in Gujarat includes 146 castes, including 17 from the Muslim community. The most populous among them is the Koli community, a traditional fishing community with a strong presence in south Gujarat and Suarashtra, that accounts for 15% of the state’s population.

Saurashtra has 48 assembly constituencies and 33 went to the BJP in 2012. The Congress ended up with 13 and Gujarat Parivartan Party of Patidar stalwart Keshubhai Patel got two.

The core of the BJP’s strategy in Gujarat seems to be to limit the damage as far as the Patidar vote is concerned, and woo OBCs. People familiar with BJP President Amit Shah’s thinking say that he believes that it is possible to win even 150 seats if both strands of the strategy work.

Towards this, the BJP has fielded more Patidar and OBC candidates this time. Hardik’s team has been divided, with some of his aides joining the BJP recently. A word of mouth campaign about emergence of the OBC under the BJP is on.

“The idea is to reach out to every voter from the OBC community and convert them,” a BJP strategist told HT.

First Published: Dec 06, 2017 07:34 IST