Without anyone saying it explicitly, there is no denying that the Opposition is throwing its all to try and upstage the BJP in the next month’s Gujarat poll. A setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP President Amit Shah in their home State can boost the Opposition’s morale. And a major factor the Opposition might reckon to be in its favour is the fact that the BJP has wielded power uninterrupted for twenty-two long years.
However good the administration, anti-incumbency is bound to become a factor. Yet, it is the paucity of options on the other side which may prove to be the BJP’s best ally. The Congress, the main opposition party, lacks a charismatic leader even at the State-level. Neither the State party chief Bharatsinh Solanki nor Shaktisinh Gohil, MLA and AICC spokesperson, has the requisite stature. The recent defection of the tallest leader and the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Shankarsinh Vaghela, along with a number of party legislators, was a big blow to the party.
Now as the polling gets near, the central leadership of the Congress is engaged in co-opting various freelance caste leaders from Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani to Hardik Patel, etc. Thakor, an OBC, had old links with the Congress and might be a natural fit, given that he had been a member of the NSUI and had in fact contested an election on its ticket. Mevani, a Dalit, is still wavering, but has made it clear that he would oppose the BJP. Patel, an upper caste, has declared his intention to support the Congress. How the mutually contradictory caste interests of Thakor, Patel and Mevani are to be reconciled remains an intractable problem, though the three youth leaders in their current state of mind might want to go against the BJP.
Should they continue to spurn various allurements from the ruling party be the time the polling day comes, the question that will gain primacy is each leader’s hold on voters belonging to his caste. It is unlikely that they will be able to overcome resistance from the far more numerous members of their own communities, given the deep networks of social and economic interests the latter had developed with the ruling party in the last two decades. It is always hard for the street-level protesters to sway a majority of the relatively old men and women belonging to their own castes and communities. In the absence of a self-goal by the incumbent party, most voters do not prefer a leaderless party which, additionally, lacks organizational structures in large parts of the State.
Besides, what might have further made it harder for Hardik Patel to influence his community, which accounts for nearly 12-15 percent of the total electorate, is the belated focus on his own conduct. The release of a CD depicting him in a compromising position with an unknown woman in a hotel room has certainly made him further controversial. Admittedly, in the normal course, everyone’s private life ought to be his/her own concern, and ought not to, generally, have a bearing on their professional conduct. But drinking with friends in a hotel room, in a State where officially, at least, total prohibition is an act of faith in the name of the Mahatma, or getting cozy with a woman in a hotel room might well be passé for ordinary folks.
But Hardik claims to be the leader of Patels. In that case, the sex CD and the alcohol drinking does become a character issue. Gujaratis tend to be generally conservative in their private morals and are bound to disapprove the conduct of Hardik. He has not denied the authenticity of the CD, but merely blamed it on the BJP. Apparently, the CD was made by one of his own old comrades when they together led the agitation for reservations in jobs and in educational institutions. Since then, along with a couple of other senior leaders, the said CD-maker has switched over to the BJP. Hardik sought to underplay the impact of the CD, publicly anticipating its release. Yet, it is bound to bring into question concerns about his character. For ordinary voters can freely infringe the widely accepted social and moral code, but when someone who aspires to be a leader of men does it, it certainly puts a question mark about his ability to resist temptation. Women voters from all communities, and not just Patels, are bound to be particularly scornful of Hardik’s conduct.