Lok Sabha elections 2019: In home base Gujarat, BJP looks to retain dominance

Saffron party aims to play on Gujarati sentiment while Congress looks to build on its assembly poll performance
Updated on Apr 02, 2019 07:40 AM IST
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With less than two weeks before the Lok Sabha elections kick off, the big political question in Gujarat revolves around whether the 2019 election will resemble the 2014 one - when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won all 26 Lok Sabha seats from the state - or 2017 assembly polls - when the BJP struggled and the Congress made a strong comeback.

It is this question that frames all conversations.

The BJP hopes it can replicate the first. The Congress hopes that it can build on its performance in the subsequent election.

But the sense from the ground is that the 2019 elections may not be either. The euphoria and excitement for the BJP, visible in 2014, is missing. But so is the public hostility that was visible in 2017. It is in this landscape that both parties are entering the battle. And this battle revolves around a common set of issues - the impact of Prime Minister Narendra Modi; the candidature of BJP president Amit Shah from Gandhinagar; the meaning of the 2017 verdict where the BJP scraped through; and the Patidar and farm factors.

 

“The 2014 hawa [wave] is not present…the question is whether the Congress has the organisational capacity to leverage this resentment against the BJP,” said Hari Desai, a political analyst and commentator.

The BJP game plan

The BJP has a simple plank - return a Gujarati prime minister to power in Delhi. It was faith in Modi, but more importantly, pride in someone from their own state, who had been chief minister for 12 years, that got the BJP the clean sweep last time around. And this card will be played again.

BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya said, “Of course, Narendra Modi and the fact that he is from Gujarat will be a factor. It is also a fact that for 10 years between 2004 to 2014, a lot of Gujarat’s development was stalled because of an unfriendly Centre. Over the past four years, having Modi ji in Delhi has helped Gujarat, be it through Narmada or the big projects that have come here.”

But Modi was a factor in 2017 too. Yet the BJP’s tally fell to below 100 in a house of 182, and a robust Opposition was constructed with the Congress securing its highest seat tally in two decades.

Going by the 2017 pattern in assembly polls, the BJP would win 17 of the 26 seats in the Lok Sabha polls - which means it will lose nine seats.

A BJP strategist points out that among these nine seats, the party would face a challenge in constituencies such as Junagadh (where it trailed by over 100,000 votes), Anand (where it trailed by close to 60,000 votes), Surendranagar and Amreli (where it was behind by over 40,000 votes). But in five other seats - Porbandar, Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, Mehsana, and Patan - the party was behind by less than 40,000 votes.

“In a Lok Sabha election, with Modi as the face, we can make up these margins.”

Pandya claims the challenges that were visible in 2017 have been overcome. The broad analysis holds two factors as responsible for the setback to BJP in rural pockets - the Patidar agitation and the farmer anger, especially over groundnut and cotton prices, and water.

But leaders claim that Hardik Patel, the face of the Patidar protests for reservation in jobs and education, has got discredited in the community, and the government’s “positive steps” - be it setting up bodies for economically weaker sections at the state level or the recent announcement of 10% reservation - will take care of Patel concerns.

This could be partly true.

Rajnikant Patel is a small farmer and also runs a tea shop in Mehsana’s agricultural mandi. A supporter of the Patidar agitation, Patel has turned sceptical of its young mascot, Hardik Patel.

“He should not have gone to the Congress. The Congress has been in power for 60 years and done little. If he had created another party, I could still have supported him.” With Gujarat becoming the first state to follow up on the constitutional amendment which allowed for 10% reservation to economically weaker sections, is Patel happy? “Let us wait and see whether this gets implemented. It is too early.”

Patel also has mixed views on the Narendra Modi government’s performance at the Centre. He supports the Goods and Services Tax (GST) - but believes that the rates were too high. He is ambivalent about demonetisation. When asked who he would like to support in the Lok Sabha elections, Patel is firm. “Modi. I supported him in 2014 and will do so in 2019. He will win again. BJP’s seats may come down. But Modi will once again be PM.”

His views are echoed by a younger Patel in the Khervad village. This is a departure of sorts because it was the younger men of the community who were the most vocal supporters of Hardik. Nikunj Patel did shift from BJP to the Congress in 2017 on Hardik’s prodding, but now feels that the 25-year-old has lost his way.

“Modi is taking difficult decisions which will give us long term returns. We should support him.”

The BJP believes that if it is able to retain its urban strongholds, upper caste base, regain a substantial segment of Patidars, keep Other Backward Classes (OBC) groups, and win over farmers through increases in minimum support prices, it would be able to reconstruct its formidable social coalition. And it is banking on the Modi wave to do so. The general sense in party circles is they should be able to comfortably win over 20 seats.

And finally, the BJP’s move to field Amit Shah from Gandhinagar has energised its cadre and is being seen as a major step to reverse the losses of the 2017 assembly election. Since then, five MLAs have left the Congress to join the ruling party.

In particular, the defection of veteran Kunvarji Bavalia (an OBC leader ) and Aasha Patel (a Patidar leader) may hit the opposition party hard given the support of these two communities was crucial for the Congress’s improved show.

“In 2014, when Modiji contested from Vadodara, for us he was contesting from all the 26 seats. Similarly, this time Amitbhai is our candidate for all the seats,” said Yogesh Patel, a grassroots worker form Saurashtra’s Amreli district.

“A national leader contesting from Gujarat changes everything for the cadre. His candidature from Gandhinagar will help us boost their morale across the state,” said Pandya.

The Congress’s hopes

If this is the BJP’s game plan, the Congress is not sitting idle either.

The Congress party’s campaign has relied on its national leadership. It held the Congress Working Committee meeting last month in Gujarat after 60 years and kicked off the Gujarat leg of its campaign from Gandhinagar with the entire top brass, including party president Rahul Gandhi, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi, former PM Manmohan Singh and newly inducted general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, in attendance.

But the party’s hopes of winning over Patidar “loyalists” through Hardik have already suffered a blow. The firebrand young leader’s planned electoral debut is now a race against time after the Gujarat high court dismissed his plea seeking a stay on the sentence in a rioting case.

Paresh Dhanani is the party’s young leader of Opposition in the state assembly. Sitting on the fifth floor of a corporate building in Ahmedabad, Dhanani claims that Modi’s Gujarati card will not work in 2019.

“In 2014, two things happened. Under a conspiracy, there was anger generated against the Congress, false allegations were made, our leaders had to face character assassination. Second, Modi told Gujarat that he was their son, their sevak [servant]. And Gujaratis, out of a sense of belonging, sent a fellow Gujarati to Delhi.”

But the mood now, Dhanani argued, has changed.

“Till 2014, Modi could claim that the Centre was not with him. But in the last four years, the BJP has had a full majority in both the centre and Gujarat. They have no excuses. The anger against the Congress has ended. And instead, there is a sense of betrayal, dhoka, among those who voted for Modi that he has hurt them the most.”

In his view, the “emotional engagement” people of Gujarat had with Modi then has dissipated.

Dhanani reads the 2017 assembly data’s implications for the Lok Sabha differently. He claims that there are actually 16 out of 26 seats where the Congress has a chance - besides the ones where it had more votes than the BJP, Dhanani includes seats where Congress lost by less than 50,000 votes.

The Congress is also banking on the fact that both the Patidar and the farmer anger persists against the BJP. Indeed, the mixed mood among Patidars is visible in Mehsana. In Khervad village, Patel farmers are not as generous as some others were in their neighbourhood.

Ramesh Patel owns 10 bighas of land while Bharat Patel owns three bighas. They were both Modi voters in 2014, but turned to the Congress in 2017. Both have become critical of Hardik Patel and claim he used the movement only for personal benefits. But this has not translated into support for the BJP either. Their disenchantment comes from agrarian issues.

“Demonetisation harmed our incomes. GST made goods more expensive for us. We got hurt both ways. Diesel prices increased. Fertiliser prices increased. Modi just talks,”said Bharat Patel. When asked if they would be willing to vote against a Gujarati PM, Ramesh Patel’s response is an emphatic yes. “We have to defeat the Gujarati PM this time.”

Only the election results will tell which of the two parties is correct. But it is clear that the battle in Gujarat will revolve around the persona of Narendra Modi, the economy, Patidar discontent, and the condition of farmers.

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Monday, December 06, 2021