Will the PM’s 12-year track record as chief minister, Gujarati pride, Amit Shah’s organizational skills and an attenuated Congress compensate for three years of messy governance, the Patidar revolt, the two-too-many atrocities against dalits and the double whammy of GST and demonetization? Raj Thackeray doesn’t think so, but the BJP appears sanguine.
The Wizard of Oz, a master of illusion, appeared “great and terrible” to friends and foes alike. So it is with BJP president Amit Shah, who casts a disproportionately long shadow over the electoral landscape. In the face of his wizardry, can the Congress, with the support of Tin Man Hardik Patel and Scarecrow Jignesh Mevani, follow the Yellow Brick Road to success in Gujarat?
In terms of symbolic significance, the 14th assembly election in Gujarat is the BJP’s biggest challenge yet. The triumph in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, the taking of Assam last year and a likely victory in Himachal Pradesh cannot be weighed against Gujarat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance will be assessed on his home turf. Forget winning, losing ground is not an option for the BJP. Naak ka sawaal hai (a question of honour).
But will the PM’s 12-year track record as chief minister, Gujarati pride, Amit Shah’s organizational skills and an attenuated Congress compensate for three years of messy governance, the Patidar revolt, the two-too-many atrocities against dalits and the double whammy of GST and demonetization? Raj Thackeray doesn’t think so, but the BJP appears sanguine.
It has reason, not merely because opinion pollsters, perhaps overcompensating for not having gotten it right in UP or Assam or in Lok Sabha 2014, have given it a thumping majority. First off, the defection from the Congress of Shankersinh Vaghela, understandably miffed at not being assured chief ministership, has further enfeebled the opposition. Himself a thakur, Vaghela forged what proved to be an unbeatable alliance with the OBCs in the mid-1990s – to the advantage of the BJP and subsequently, Modi. Despite his political adventures, he continues to enjoy some measure of influence in north Gujarat and his Jan Vikalp Party could split the anti-incumbency vote.
The Congress, having all but collapsed in the state after being out of power for two decades, is trying to accrue votes through last-minute strategic tie-ups with newbie state players like Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani. Its president-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi may well enjoy a greater rapport with 24-year-old Hardik than the 77-year-old Vaghela, but the electoral efficacy of the much-anticipated alliances is open to question. The Patels, dominant in Saurashtra, form 12 per cent of the population statewide – as opposed to 40 per cent OBCs – and are by no means homogeneous, as the defection of Hardik’s aides to the BJP proves.
Both Hardik and Rahul know that whatever commitment the latter makes in terms of reservation for the patidars will be undeliverable, given the 50 per cent cap on quotas imposed by the Supreme Court. The Rajasthan government has certainly breached this limit by acceding to the Gujjars’ long-standing demands for reservation, but the move is unlikely to stand up in court. To give the Patel’s OBC status and thus a share of the existing quota pie of 27 per cent would upset the OBCs. In fact, what Hardik and his cohorts really want is not affirmative action but a level playing field, which is not possible in the near future. Given this harsh ground reality, Hardik is certain to be a tough negotiator and demand terms favourable to him rather than the Congress.
For the Congress, the alliance is worth it even on unfavourable terms if Hardik’s votes are transferable. It must bear in mind that the Patels have been BJP supporters and his rise resulted from the state government’s mishandling of a legitimate angst expressed by Patidar youth. He is certainly charismatic – a genuine youth leader from the grassroots – and enjoys a following, but whether the crowds who turn out to hear him will translate into votes for the Congress is questionable. The same applies to the neophyte dalit leader, Jignesh Mevani, who may well follow OBC leader Alpesh Thakore into the Congress.
While the Congress may play at reviving the KHAM (kshatriya, harijan, adivasi, Muslim) coalition, its best bet in Gujarat currently is not caste calculations but the downturn in the economy. As a manufacturing state, Gujarat has been hard-hit. GST has impacted small businesses and boosted unemployment. Traders are on the warpath. In other words, the Congress is, quite cleverly, seeking to erode the voters’ faith in their Vikas Purush.
The BJP for its part has been working hard to convince all levels of business that the adverse effects are temporary and gains will begin to flow in a few months. It has also made strenuous efforts to win over farmers – helped, in small measure, by a sudden spike in cotton prices – by waiving loans and dedicating the Sardar Sarovar Dam to the state. Shah hopes to end the year the same way he began – with a resounding endorsement of Modi’s policies from the electorate.
The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.