Ahmedabad: BJP, facing an intense infigthing within various factions in the state, is depending solely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's political clout and his charisma in the state. This is the most crucial election in the state in recent decades and it is being closely watched by political analysts all over the country because the outcome of this election is likely to have impact in 2019 Lok Sabha elections as well.
Modi had been coming to the state to attend various programmes almost every month for the last one year. But his visit to the state increased in the last one month. In October, he visited the state five times, addressing more than two dozen programmes with a view to galvanising people in favour of the party whose influence on the electorate is waning though it continues to be stronger than other parties. He also took part in a roadshow in Vadodara, the hub of Central Gujarat, where the Congress is very strong. But, he did not attract crowds, indicating even Modi's grip over the BJP voters is weakening. After the announcement of election dates, the BJP is planning to carpet-bomb the state with Modi addressing more than 50 public meetings across the state in November and December. BJP has also become jittery with impressive response to Rahul Gandhi's six-day roadshow in Saurashtra and central Gujarat regions and a public meeting in Gandhinagar on October 23. And, hence more demand from BJP for Modi to counter it.
Modi addressed a public meeting on October 16, that was the culmination of BJP's 15-day Gaurav Yatra, covering 149 of the state's 182 constituencies. It was held on the lines of the ``Gaurav Yatra'' that was taken out by Modi as chief minister of the state after Godhra riots in 2002 and it had resulted in strong polarisation on communal lines that gave good electoral dividends to BJP with win in 127 seats, the highest ever number of seats won by BJP since it came to power in the state for the first time in 1995. The BJP subsequently won all the assembly elections of 1998, 2002, 2007 and 2012. But in the 2002 Gaurav Yatra, Modi used slogans like 'Hum Paanch,. Hamare Pachees'(We are five, we will beget 25) ostensibly to show that Muslim population is growing fast and it poses a threat to the Hindus. But in 2017, he has changed the slogan to ``Hun chhu Gujarat, Hun chhu vikas(I am Gujarat, I am Development).
But Modi's slogan indicated that he was simply countering the social media campaign of the Congress-'Vikas Gando thayo chhe' (Vikas has gone mad or crazy), mocking Modi's Gujarat model of development. The Congress campaign has in fact made BJP leaders so nervous that national BJP president Amit Shah himself had to appeal to his supporters at some of the meetings not to go by Congress propaganda of 'Vikas gando thayo chhe''. It also suggested that state's electoral agenda has been set by the Congress and BJP was just following it. Earlier, it was BJP that set the poll agenda and Congress just responded to it.
BJP also invited several of its central cabinet ministers and chief ministers to address the Gaurav Yatra. They included Smriti Irani, Ravi Shanker Parasad, Nirmala Sitharam,. Rajnath Singh, Uma Bharati, UP CM Yogi Adityanath, Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje and MP CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan. Adityanath's roadshow was a total failure in Valsad in South Gujarat as hardly anybody turned up in his programmes despite Yogi being highly popular in his home state. The Gaurav Yatra was also disrupted by the public at several places.
Though Amit Shah has publicly declared that his party will win 150 seats out of a total of 182 in December 2017 elections, one more than 149 seats won by Madhavsinh Solanki of the Congress in 1985, Madhavsinh Solanki's record has not been beaten by any party or leader so far. BJP got the highest number 127 seats in 2002 when Modi was at the peak of his popularity after Godhra and post-Godhra riots when Gujarat had wintnessed a strong communal polarisation. But the turn out of crowds at BJP programmes and strong opposition to it from various sections this time, particularly from Patidar, OBCs and Dalits as also tribals, coupled with infighting within the BJP, indicate that Shah may not be able to realise his dreams. In fact, Amit Shah had to wait for three hours to address a public meeting at Karamsad, native place of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the second week of this month because there was no public at all at the meeting.
Similarly, one of his public meetings was disrupted by Patidar youths in Surat and the police had to form a security ring around Shah to enable him to speak. But Shah finished his speech within a few minutes and had to retreat owing to opposition from Patel. Shah is described as 'General Dyer' (the British army officer responsible for the 1919 Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of protesters) by Patidars as he is held responsible for the death of 12 Patidar youths during August 2015 Patidar reservation agitation. Likewise, the Narmada Yatra taken out by Chief Minister Vijay Rupani to attract farmers was a total flop as it was opposed at most of the places by farmers themselves. The Yatra was taken out to propagate the argument that it was BJP that completed the Narmada dam and not the Congress. But the fact is that BJP in its 22 years of rule in the state has not been able to construct 40,000 kilometres of minor canals to take the Narmada water to the farmers' fields, thus no benefit accruing to the agriculturists despite the dam achieving its full height of 146 metres.
The BJP that claimed to be pro-businessmen, faced month-long protest rallies by textile traders in Surat against Goods and Services Tax(GST) in July. After Modi shifted to Delhi as PM, factionalism came to the fore in state BJP. It was Amit Shah who played a role in replacement of former chief minister Anandiben Patel and her replacement by Vijay Rupani. Anandiben has now submitted in writing to Amit shah that she will not contest assembly polls. She is also not taking any part in electoral process even when the Patidars, the community to which she belongs, are up in arms against BJP. Reports say that Anandiben has kept herself away from the elections at the behest of Modi, leaving Amit Shah to face the Gujarat elections alone. If the election results go against the party, it will give a chance to his opponent to demand that Amit Shah be removed from his post of the party's national president. CM Vijay Rupani, though a good man, has no mass base of his own. Meanwhile, involvement of Jay Shah, son of Amit Shah, in an alleged scam that resulted in his company's revenues going up by 16,000 times after Modi came to power, has provided fresh ammunition not only to the Congress but also to Amit Shah's opponents within the BJP. It has also further spoiled the image of BJP.
BJP is facing the strongest of opposition from OBC leader Alpesh Thakor who joined the Congress on October 23 in the presence of Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi. Thakor voters dominate the Central Gujarat region around Ahmedabad and state capital of Gandhinagar and in districts like Sabarkantha, Banaskantha, Aravalli and Patan. Patidar agitation leader Hardik Patel, who is agitating for reservation for his community in government jobs and admission in educational institutions since July 2015, has gone on full throttle against BJP and has organised big public meetings in Patidar dominated areas in recent weeks. The response to his public meetings have been very huge. He is accusing the BJP of being "maha-chor'' (big thief) and asking his community members to vote for the Congress to teach BJP a lesson. He says that BJP acquired political power in Gujarat and Modi became chief minister of Gujarat and then Prime Minister with vote and money of Patels but the BJP and Modi have not done anything for the Patidars.
Patidars account for about 15 per cent of the state's population and run a large number of industries and businesses and are also landlords. Surat's diamond trade is dominated by Patidars. Posters and banners have appeared in many Patidar villages, banning entry of BJP leaders. The banners proclaim that there is Section 144 of CRPC in force for BJP leaders in these villages. Hardik Patel met Rahul Gandhi in Hotel Ummed here on October 23 night secretly during which Hardik is said to have presented his demands to Rahul Gandhi. Though Hardik has declared his support for the Congress, he has not indicated if he would join the Congress formally. But his meeting with Rahul Gandhi has sent shivers down the BJP leadership as Hardik Patel has emerged as a hero of the Patidar youths. After Sardar Vallabhai Patel, India's first Home Minister, Hardik Patel has become the most popular leader of the Patidar community. Hardik's popularity can be gauged from the fact that when two of his colleagues - Varun Patel and Reshma Patel - defected to BJP a week ago, Patidars burnt their effigies all over the state, stating that the two had betrayed the community. They were also not allowed to hold a media briefing in one of the hotels in Ahmedabad owned by a BJP leader. Another Hardik aide - Narendra Patel - conducted a sting operation when he was allegedly offered Rs. One crore to join the BJP.
Narendra Patel has now filed a case against Varun Patel and some BJP leaders who made the offer of money to him. To appease the Patidar community, the state government has withdrawn more than 140 cases against Patidars accused of involvement in violence during the Patidar quota agitation in August 2015. On October 26, Patidar NGO activists close to BJP paid Rs. 20 lakh each to the nearest kin of the 12 Patidars killed in police action during reservation in August 2015. The state government also withdrew cases against 12 Patidar farmers of Sanand, registered in February this year, all keeping an eye on elections.
Dalit activist Jignesh Mewani, who is fighting for the self-respect of the Dalit community, is also up in arms against the BJP and organising his community against the saffron party. BJP, however, does not fear much from Mewani because Dalits account only for 7-8 per cent of the state's population and have no financial or political clout.
The delay in announcement of dates for Gujarat elections is also being interpreted as a bid by BJP to take more time for announcing new projects in Gujarat by the central and state governments in order to influence voters. According to details available from the state government sources, projects worth more than Rs. 15,000 crore were either announced or launched by the central and state governments in Gujarat after HP elections were announced on October 12 and before announcement of Gujarat elections on October 25. Most of these are sops for Patidars and farmers. Only the election results on December 18 will tell if these sops got the votes for BJP or it was simply ignored by the voters.
But Modi's latest strategy indicates that BJP leadership is not sure of development plank giving them a victory in Gujarat. BJP, which is known to using polarisation as a weapon to win elections in Gujarat since 1995 as also in other states and Lok Sabha elections in 2014, is now trying to revert to its old strategy of communal polarisation. The BJP is circulating an audio clip of a telephonic conversation between Modi and a BJP worker - Gopal Gohil - in Vadodara on Diwali day (October 19). In the audio clip of conversation, Modi reminds Gohil of Congress president Sonia Gandhi's 'maut ka saudagar' (merchant of death) comments on him in 2007 assembly elections in Gujarat, in connection with the killing of over 1200 persons in Godhra and Post-Godhra riots and killing of several people in allegedly fake encounters.
Political analysts say that the effort appears to be a part of the strategy to communalise the elections. But Hardik Patel immediately countered it, and warned that the BJP leaders were trying to provoke communal riots to polarise the voters because they are seeing their defeat in the elections. He is now asking Patidars at his rallies to prevent communal riots with a view to defeat the BJP. But one and a half months are still to go for elections when public will decide the fate of various parties.