Gujarat polls: With Hardik Patel as catalyst, Congress may finally exploit BJP's vulnerability in Saurashtra
The catalyst of BJP's nervousness in Saurashtra has been Hardik Patel, the Patidar leader causing nightmares to a party in power for 22 years in Gujarat.
Hours after Congress AICC secretary Rajeev Satav was beaten up through the night by Gujarat Police in Rajkot, I met one of the Congress workers at breakfast. "We just wanted to meet our detained candidate Indranil (Rajyaguru)," he said. "The police did not let us in. When we resisted, they beat us up black and blue."
Earlier that evening, on 2 December, Indranil, who contested against state chief minister Vijay Rupani, had been detained for protesting at the chief minister's residence. His brother had been beaten up by BJP cadres after a scuffle. Satav, being the Congress man-in-charge of Saurashtra, had gone with several other workers to meet his candidate. Instead, they met Gujarat Police in a bad mood.
The worker I met was bruised, but he evidently got a kick in recollecting the turn of events. The Congress campaign had been throwing up promising signs. It indicated they may be getting under the skin of the Goliath. By beating up their opponents over a lame excuse, the BJP state government had confirmed its nervousness. The adrenaline of the worker was all about that confirmation.
The catalyst of BJP's nervousness has been Hardik Patel, the 23-year old Patidar leader causing nightmares to a party in power for 22 years in Gujarat, and a clear majority in Delhi. OBC leader Alpesh Thakore and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani are also key players to have messed up BJP's caste equations, but nobody is hurting BJP as much as Hardik. Not even Rahul Gandhi, who has run a consistent campaign focussing on jobs, growth and farm distress.
In all fairness, similar reports had been written about BJP's vulnerability in Saurashtra ahead of the 2012 Assembly elections. It was Keshubhai Patel then, instead of Hardik, who was expected to dent BJP's cinch over the dominant Patel community.
However, the churn on the ground suggests that Hardik would be able to do what Kesubhai could not, particularly in rural Saurashtra, and among lower-income groups.
He began his campaign against the BJP with reservation as the focal point more than a year ago. As the elections came closer, he cleverly phased out reservation from his speeches and harped on BJP government's misrule, jobless growth and the exclusivity of the Gujarat Model that has failed to reach the interiors.
Rasangpar village in Morbi is merely an example of Hardik's connect. The village has a significant Patidar population. I was told before entering the village that it had voted for the BJP en-mass. A couple of hours later, after much effort, I had failed to meet a single voter who still supported BJP.
Most of the rural Patidars are farmers, who have been dealing with increasingly unviable economics behind farming. An example of cotton convincingly explains the farm distress. When Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, 20 kilograms of cotton would be sold at Rs 1,200 and he would castigate the UPA-ruled Centre for not increasing it up to Rs 1,500.
Today, the prices have plunged to Rs 850-900 for 20 kilograms, and the production costs have tripled. Farmers accuse Modi of duplicity and echo what Hardik has been implying. "We were loyal to the party for decades, but what did we get in return? Bullets," they said, referring to the deaths of 14 protesting Patidars at the hands of Gujarat Police. "We do not really love the Congress, but it is time to vote out the BJP."
The farm distress is coupled with water scarcity, something that Saurashtra has been dealing with for years. In 2012, just before the elections, Modi had launched an ambitious scheme to permanently end the region's water woes through a network of pipelines that would channelise floodwater from Sardar Sarovar Dam and fill up 115 dams in Saurashtra.
But as the 2017 state elections are set to conclude, hardly 30 percent of the scheme has been executed, and even Surendranagar, from where three of the four pipelines take off to supply water to the entire region, gets drinking water only twice a week for 20 minutes. An overwhelming majority of villages too, solely depend on erratic monsoons. Villagers across Saurashtra, particularly Patels egged on by Hardik, believe the Gujarat Model is not meant for them.
The Patels have been siding with the BJP since the 1980s when Congress-ruled Gujarat and left them out of its KHAM (Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim) equation. The urban Patidars, most of them traders and businessmen, still seem to back Modi, or so they say. Largely the trader community has kept its cards close to its chest.
However, the mood on the ground has forced the BJP to play the communal card and polarise the election by making some bizarre claims. The conspiracy theory of Pakistan wanting to make Ahmad Patel the chief minister and accusing former prime minister Manmohan Singh of treason is merely a continuation of previous campaigns.
He did it in 2002 with "Miyan Musharraf", followed it up with "no Aaliya-Maliya-Jamaliya can come to Gujarat" in 2007. By the time 2012 arrived, he did not need to seek votes by making Hindus insecure, for the Congress was in doldrums at the Centre, and he had established himself as a Hindutva icon in Gujarat.
Gujarat is a state of deep anti-Muslim sentiment and an exaggerated sense of provincial pride, particularly visible in urban areas, which remain BJP's citadels.The communal undertones here are hard to miss.
When someone says BJP has maintained law and order, they basically mean the BJP has kept the Muslims in check. When someone says the Congress government could lead to riots, they imply that Muslims would think of themselves as equal citizens.
The sentiment pre-dates Modi, but he is perpetuating it for sure, in order to desperately retain his core constituency. He knows the anti-Muslim rhetoric is likely to make a difference predominantly in urban and semi-urban areas, which form about a formidable 45 percent of Gujarat, where, in spite of the anti-incumbency, the public would think twice before deserting the man who "showed Muslims their place in 2002".
The communal colour is accompanied by Gujarati Asmita and incessantly painting Rahul and Congress as "outsiders". TV ads keep describing Modi as "our man in Delhi", and slogans of "Gujarat ki jeet, Modi ki jeet" keep reverberating through the streets. However, the Congress can take a lot of heart from the fact that it has forced Modi to nervously dump "vikas" precisely where it was supposedly born.