Gujarat see-saws between reconciliation, prejudice

Not surprising then that across age groups and gender, one hears voices of support for the Congress — not as much out of love for it as for teaching the BJP a lesson.

assembly elections Updated: Dec 09, 2017 07:52 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times, Banaskantha/Patan/Mehsana
Gujarat elections,Gujarat elections 2017,Gujarat polls
Polling officials check the EVMs in Surat on the eve of the first phase of the Gujarat assembly election. (PTI Photo)

No, the envisioned Ram Temple in Ayodhya isn’t an issue that hits one in the face in agrarian North Gujarat. Much of the public discourse here is about sustenance; oppression and denial of fair opportunity.

Out in the fields that grow cumin, fennel and psyllium seeds, it’s an angry world locked in a contest with urban affluence. What mocks people is their sense of poverty in contrast with next-door abundance.

They feel their lives are shorn of the spice and aroma of their farm produce. Unlike in urban pockets, debates at line-hotels on highways and tea vends in the interior aren’t about incessant political name-calling that drives TV chat shows. They’re about promises made — but not kept.

Along the over 200 km stretch from Ahmedabad to Banaskantha through Mehsana and Patan, outrage over the 2015 police action to quell the Hardik Patel-led Patidar stir isn’t residual. It is palpable!

The full picture emerges when one factors in rising unemployment, farmers’ angst, shoestring existence of fixed-salaried teachers and junior policemen, graft at local level and privatisation that makes education far too expensive.

It’s not for nothing that Rahul Gandhi gets an attentive audience when he flags these issues. The questions he asks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are the ones the people have.

Not surprising then that across age groups and gender, one hears voices of support for the Congress — not as much out of love for it as for teaching the BJP a lesson. Predictions of support for the ruling party rest mostly on humongous logistics at its command and Modi’s larger than life aura. Mostly muted and sporadically loud, resentment is as much against the PM. But his drawing power is recognised by his detractors who, in a first of sorts in over two decades, aren’t hard to come by. Some among them feel however that Hardik is as much of a crowd puller without the support of a party machinery.

A tussle between the ‘established and the emerging leader’ will be on display soon in the region that goes to polls on December 14. What should worry the BJP is the tangible alienation. The prevailing mood having its genesis in police action against the Patel youth, turns upside down the conventional wisdom of public memory being short.

A proof of it is the BJP’s foremost Patidar face and deputy CM Nitin Patel sweating it out in the party’s bastion of Mehsana. The dilemma of the very affable former state minister, Jay Narayan Vyas is no different at nearby Sidhpur in Patan. They’re both banking on Modi to turn the tide.

It is hard to miss the BJP’s bid to use the Temple issue and Mani Shankar Aiyar’s low-brow jibe at the PM to polarise voters on religious and caste lines. But the strategy isn’t paying dividends. Not yet.

One reason for that, perhaps, is the inclusive appeal of the anti-BJP trident: Hardik, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakor.

Hardik is a campaigner, not a contestant. But the other two are candidates in Banaskantha (Vadgam) and Patan (Radhanpur) respectively.

It must be said to the BJP’s credit that the Jignesh-Alpesh duo have been restricted to their constituencies through richly-funded independents and a word of mouth-media campaign. Jignesh for instance is facing a former area MLA’s son contesting as an Independent. Rightly or wrongly, he’s also shown to have links with a Muslim outfit under NIA probe.

But Jignesh is a good orator. He’s finding traction with the Vadgam electorate whom he exhorts to elect him to “send a message” to Vadnagar, the PM’s birth-place in Mehsana. His game plan is to capitalise on anti-incumbency in an area where caste is a major factor and development is lacking: “It has been divide and rule for 22 years. My (tailoring machine) poll symbol will join the threads to stitch up the divide.”

His independent challenge has the official support of the Congress that holds six out of Banaskantha’s nine seats.

But he’s denied help on the ground by local party leaders. By his own admission, the other challenge he has, is of overturning the BJP’s all-out effort to present him as ‘anti-Hindu’ in a constituency with a sizeable Muslim population.

The poll-time machinations in Vadgam are a microcosm of the strategy the BJP wants to secure across Gujarat: use the Muslim card, the temple issue and Aiyar’s comment to whip up an identity backlash encompassing Dalits and the OBCs. Hardik knows it. So does the Congress.

First Published: Dec 09, 2017 07:51 IST