After the Delhi and Bihar poll debacles, the BJP had to contend with a poor showing in Gujarat’s local elections. Not only did it alienate the Patels, but also the OBCs, tribals and Dalits.
By RK Misra in Ahmedabad
Superstition is as much a part of Indian life as salt. So when a flock of crows were found dead outside the BJP office in Ahmedabad on Nov-ember 22, the first leg of polling to 323 local self-government bodies in Gujarat, it was seen as a bad omen.
The ruling BJP retained six of eight municipal corporations—Ahmedabad, Vado-dara, Rajkot, Surat, Jamnagar and Bhav-nagar (seen as urban segments)—that went to the polls that day, while the Congress got 10 against the six it held in 2010. In Rajkot, the BJP won by a mere four seats (38 to the Congress’ 34). In Ahmedabad, it was down to 142 as against 151 in 2010. In Surat, it fell to 80 from 98 in 2010. In Vadodara, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar, the BJP won comfortably. The Congress, meanwhile, improved its tally from 14 (in 2010) to 36 (in 2015).
However, disaster struck in the second leg of polling on November 29 when over 2.6 crore people cast their franchise for 31 district panchayats, 230 tehsil panchayats and 56 municipalities. The Congress swept the district and tehsil panchayats, bagging 23 and 132 respectively against 39 and one it held in 2010. On the other hand, the BJP which controlled 30 of the 31 district panchayats in 2010 was down to a dismal six and its control of tehsil panchayats whittled down to 73 from the 192 it controlled in 2010. There was a tie in Gir-Somnath and Dangs districts between the two parties.
URBAN VS RURAL
The results show that there was a broad vertical divide. While the BJP retained its old-time urban vote bank, it was swept away in rural areas where the Congress made a spectacular comeback.
Ironically, the Patels, a solid vote bank for the BJP, did not back the party. They constitute about 14 percent of the total 63 million population of Gujarat and 21 percent voter representation. But this time, they chose to move away from the present establishment headed by a Patel chief minister, Anandiben Patel; a Patel state BJP chief, RC Faldu; a cabinet where seven of 24 ministers were Patels and an assembly where 42 of 182 legislators were also from their community. Instead, the Patels cast their lot with the Congress, where the top three leaders—state party chief Bharatsinh Solanki, Cong-ress legislature party chief Shankersinh Vaghela and another leader Shaktisinh Gohil—were Kshatriyas.
What began as a demand for caste-based reservation led by Hardik Patel, 22, turned into a full-scale confrontation after a public meeting in Ahmedabad led to a clash with the police which left eight dead. The government’s move to put Hardik and half-a-dozen others behind bars on sedition charges only added fuel to fire.
Such has been the alienation in rural areas from the BJP that it has been virtually wiped out in Saurashtra and North Gujarat and has just a tenuous hold in Central Gujarat. What’s more, rural Gujarat voted with a vengeance, with 69 percent turnout compared to about 47 percent in urban municipal corporations. Not only did the Patels move away from the BJP, but last-ditch desperate attempts to entice OBCs, tribals and Dalits also failed to yield results.
What led to this rural angst was the heavy urban tilt in governance and a feeling of neglect. This was reflected in the state government’s agrarian policies where agricultural land was given to industries while a heavy-handed approach was taken towards rural protests.
While considerably relieved at the showing in urban areas, Anandiben Patel is belie-ved to be disturbed at the rural “washout”. She has cause to be for if one was to calculate the 182 assembly seats, the Congress has almost drawn even with the BJP.
The reverses in Gujarat are also a matter of concern for the national BJP leadership as this is the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Gujarat model of governance has been much bandied about at the national level. During his 13 years as CM, Modi had sent the Congress cartwheeling out of reckoning and handed over an almost opposition-less state to Anandiben. In just 18 months , the Congress is back with a bang in Gujarat and as things stand, seems to be gearing up for a fight during the next assembly elections in 2017. For Modi, after the reverses in Delhi and Bihar, the loss of Gujarat will prove a catastrophe, more so because it will come just two years ahead of the general elections in 2019.
While a change of guard in Gujarat is not likely in the near future, it cannot be entirely ruled out if the slide is not arrested. In fact, the situation for the BJP in urban Gujarat would also have been disquieting were it not for the fact that the State Election Commi-ssion (SEC) headed by a retired civil servant of the Gujarat cadre, Varesh Sinha, virtually acted as a “B” team of the state government. The SEC obliged the government by going along with it in the promulgation of an ordinance to postpone local self-government elections. Thankfully, the Gujarat High Court intervened and ordered elections to be held promptly, leading the SEC to cut a sorry figure in court.
Even during the holding of elections, the SEC was mired in controversy when over a lakh of voter names was found “deleted”. The Gujarat Congress was scathing in its criticism of the SEC.
The Congress, as expected, is upbeat. State party chief Bharatsinh Solanki has termed the poll verdict as a decisive mandate against the BJP government. Anandiben, on her part, has gone on record to state that she will go back to the drawing board to ensure that she regains the confidence of the rural areas. Already, she has initiated numerous measures to undo the damage.
The damage has been immense. Mehsana, the home district of Modi, Anandiben and numerous other ministers has fallen to the Congress. Even the village Karnali in Vado-dara district, adopted by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, has chosen to turn its back on the BJP. Unjha, a small town, considered the cumin seed capital of the country and a BJP bastion for over two decades, saw the party facing the ignominy of not being able to put up a single candidate. While the Congress managed to win a seat here, the remaining 35 went to independents, including 18 women. One saving grace for the BJP was that in Viramgam, the home town of Hardik Patel, it bettered its tally.
For Modi, after the reverses in Delhi and Bihar, the loss of Gujarat will prove a catastrophe, as it will come just two years ahead of the general elections in 2019.
Even as the Congress gets ready to drive home the advantage of these elections with a burst of activity, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has also decided to fish in troubled waters. It is in the process of restructuring its Gujarat unit and has appointed regional heads in a bid to provide a “third option” to the people of Gujarat in the 2017 elections. According to Sanjay Singh, an AAP leader from Delhi, his party would organize 50 rallies in rural Gujarat over the next six months.
These local self-government polls have undoubtedly raised the political temperature in Gujarat and the state could see more action in the coming months.