As Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Patel heartland Rajkot on Tuesday, there would be a lot more on his mind than the launch of Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation (SAUNI) Yojna. In a visit loaded with political significance, he is likely to signal his first direct intervention in the continuing Patel unrest in Gujarat, if not through announcements, then through subtle messaging.
This is his second visit to the region in 15 days — underlining a renewed sense of urgency in the BJP to bring the Patel community, a robust support base of over two decades, back in its fold. The party realises that it has allowed the Hardik Patel-led agitation to linger for long; with assembly elections not too far off it has to act fast. Modi had visited the state on 15 August to condole the death of spiritual guru Pramukh Swami, of the Swaminarayan sect which is popular among Patels.
For the first time since 1996, the BJP is staring at the prospect of an electoral defeat in Gujarat, thanks to the Patel agitation. If that happens then it would not be a matter of simple electoral loss for Modi and party president Amit Shah; it would be a huge blow to their national stature. Both have made Gujarat the party’s show piece state, flaunting its achievements without reservation. In the long run-up to the general elections of 2014, they had sold the Gujarat model to the country, claiming it had no parallel elsewhere. A defeat in the elections – it would be the first one in a decade with no Modi helming the state — would leave them exposed to many questions, not from the opposition but from within too.
With prestige at stake, both leaders are leaving nothing to chance. Post-Anandiben, who many in the party unit believe let the agitation go out of hand, both leaders have put damage control moves in place quickly. The new chief minister Vijay Rupani, who belongs to the Saurashtra region, is known to be close to Patels while his deputy Nitin Patel is a leader of the community. The new party chief Jitu Vaghani, from the Bhavnagar region, is also a Patel.
What makes them see danger signals? The community has been sturdy supporters of the party for long. Patels constitute around 18 percent of the state’s population but they punch way above their weight in politics as they are an economically and socially strong community. The community contributed two chief ministers to the state, Keshubhai Patel and Anandiben. However, the support base has been eroding ever since a section of the community hit the streets demanding reservation in schools and government jobs. There are signs that with job options restricted, the younger generation is getting disenchanted with the party and would not hesitate to look for other alternatives.
After Modi’s exit from the state, the party seems to have lost the connect with them. Their leader, Hardik, is yet to be pacified and he promises revenge after a stint in jail. The anger of the community was evident in the local body elections earlier this year when the party suffered in rural areas as the Patels did not vote for it.
So it is on to Modi to tilt the balance in favour of the BJP again. Considering the circumstances – the Dalits are in the agitation mode too - it is a big task. In the 182-strong assembly, the BJP has 123 seats. When Modi was hief minister he never let it slip below 117. Given his reputation it would be a loss of face if he fails to manage this number in the election next year.