[The scene in Surat after Patidars created ruckus in the BJP rally held in this diamond city.]
The Patidar agitation in Gujarat is brewing more trouble as Amit shah- the chanakay of BJP faced onslaught of Patel power in Surat recently.In what was supposed to be a show of strength for the party among Patidars, Amit Shah and Vijay Rupani, among other senior BJP leaders attended a function organized by the Patidar Abhivadan Samiti in Surat, a Patidar bastion.Minutes into the function, chaos broke out as local Patidars starting shouting slogans like ‘Jai Sardar, Jai Patidar’ and demonstrated their support for Hardik Patel. Chairs were flung and there was ruckus all around, forcing Amit Shah and others to cut short their speeches. There have been allegations that the protest was ‘staged’ by opponents, but there is no denying the fact that BJP’s shoddy handling of Patidar reservation issue has eroded BJP’s popularity among one of its most dedicated vote bank.in the backdrop of the agitation, the BJP has been struggling to retain its key vote bank of the financially powerful Patidar community a year before the state is set to go for the assembly polls
BJP has traditionally been seen as Gujarat’s default governing party. Since 1995, a BJP leader has been at the helm of Gujarat. However, by the looks of it, political winds seem to be blowing against the BJP in Gujarat, which is due for elections in 2017. Ever since Narendra Modi’s elevation as the Prime Minister in 2014, the prospects of BJP in the state seem to be on a perennial downhill.
It all began with Anandiben Patel’s lackadaisical leadership which allowed Patidar Anamat Andolan to spin out of control, the results of which were evident in the Municipal and Local body elections, where Congress triumphed in 23 of 31 district panchayats and 113 of the 193 taluka panchayats.
Dalit Andolan that followed, further dented the government’s image. Belatedly, BJP tried to remedy the situation by bringing in Vijay Rupani to replace the discredited Anandiben Patel, but evidently Mr. Rupani has a difficult task ahead of him. In what was supposed to be a show of strength for the party among Patidars, Amit Shah and Vijay Rupani, among other senior BJP leaders attended a function organized by the Patidar Abhivadan Samiti in Surat, a Patidar bastion.
Minutes into the function, chaos broke out as local Patidars starting shouting slogans like ‘Jai Sardar, Jai Patidar’ and demonstrated their support for Hardik Patel. Chairs were flung and there was ruckus all around, forcing Amit Shah and others to cut short their speeches. There have been allegations that the protest was ‘staged’ by opponents, but there is no denying the fact that BJP’s shoddy handling of Patidar reservation issue has eroded BJP’s popularity among one of its most dedicated vote bank..
Patidars, who form nearly a 15% of the state’s population, have historically been the well-off, landowning caste in the state. In 1981, Congress government introduced reservation for socially and economically backward castes which resulted in riots and strong anti-caste agitations.
Patidars, who were adversely impacted by the decision, then left the Congress in droves and hitched their wagon to BJP’s star. Slowly and steadily, BJP gained clout in Gujarat, winning 11 seats in 1985, 67 in 1990, 121 in 1995, 117 in 1998, 127 in 2002, 117 in 2007 and 119 in 2012.
All along, Patidars remained BJP’s loyal vote bank, sticking with it, even when senior Patidar leader, Keshubhai Patel was unceremoniously ditched and replaced by Narendra Modi in 2001. That support evaporated rapidly given BJP’s massive failure in being able to rein in Hardik Patel and his Patidar Anamat Andolan that demanded OBC status for Patidars, drawing inspiration from Gujjar Andolan in neighbouring Rajasthan.
There was widespread violence during the agitation, with civic life disrupted. However, so stark was the government’s mismanagement that Opposition parties like INC, that has forever been eyeing a revival in Gujarat and upstart AAP that wants to spread its base beyond Delhi, both saw an opportunity to bake their own political bread over the issue and launched scathing attacks on the government.
Government’s blow hot, blow cold strategy collapsed when Anandiben Patel agreed to a 10% quota for Patels that was subsequently cancelled by the Gujarat High Court. The results of the Andolan were immediately visible in the local body polls held in November 2015, when BJP ceded ground to Congress in rural areas, even while in continued to hold the fort in urban areas. Damage clearly had been done. Worse, though, was yet to come for the party.
Patidar andolan was followed by agitations led by Dalits in 2016. Despicable attacks on Dalit youth by men claiming to be Gaurakshaks spurred the community to protest government’s apathy to protection of Dalits.
During the flogging at Una, policemen were reported to be disinterested in stopping the beatings and apprehending the culprits. Soon after the incident, major political leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Mayawati visited the victims and heaped scorn upon the government.
Massive rallies held across the state cursed Anandiben Patel, Amit Shah and even Narendra Modi. Reports suggest that at a rally in Vadnagar, Modi’s home town, Modi was jeered and noone came forward to defend him, a far cry from the days when mere criticism of Modi would have been unheard of in parts of Gujarat. Anandiben Patel’s administrative and political skills were once again found wanting as the agitation spread far and wide and brought more disgrace to the government. With 15% Patidars and 7.5% Dalits pitting themselves against the BJP, the party belatedly realized that Anandiben Patel was becoming a costly liability. Soon thereafter, Vijay Rupani was brought in to replace Anandiben.
An internal poll conducted by RSS in August showed that BJP could expect to win only 60-65 seats if polls were held in Gujarat. Clearly, Patidar and Dalit agitations had cost the party dearly. Another scary insight brought forth by the poll was that Muslims were coming out to support the Dalits, rekindling fears of a Dalit-Muslim consolidated votebank being formed before the assembly elections.
Historically, Dalits had been committed Congress supporters, who had been brought over to the BJP after decades of work. Muslims, Dalits and Patidars make up a whopping 32% of Gujarat’s population and their alienation with BJP, in part or in full, will undoubtedly cost the party dearly.
In addition to this, it seems that in the absence of Modi’s superb administrative skills, Gujarat model is unravelling. Number of sick units have gone up from 20,000 in 2012-13 to nearly 50,000 in 2014-15. Outstanding loans to MSMEs have gone up from 836 crores in 2012-13 to 2600 crores in 2014-15. NPA assets in banks have gone up from 13000 crore last year to over 25,000 crore this year. More than anything, economic factors are amplifying societal discord, resulting in agitations and chaos.
The Vijay Rupani-Nitin Patel duo have their task cut out. They will need to do all that it takes to bring back the Patidars and ensure that Gujarat economic miracle does not fizzle out. Rupani, is already showing promise.He is seen as a stronger administrator and comes across as more affable and conciliatory than Anandiben, who was widely perceived as being autocratic. Perhaps, the Patidar outreach program at Surat had his blessings.
Even if Amit Shah and others were booed at Surat, it will take many more such meetings for BJP to strike a conciliatory tone with communities that have risen against the government in recent years.Objectively speaking, BJP has been in power in Gujarat since 1995 and it is obvious that voter fatigue and anti-incumbency is bound to step in. Amit Shah will need to use all his skills to ensure that Gujarat stays with BJP in the next elections.
A loss in Gujarat will weaken the party badly and put it in a tough spot ahead of 2019 national elections. Amit Shah has a lot of thinking to do.The electoral road would certainly be more bumpy this time than Modi’s rollercoaster ride during the last three Assembly elections. Will the Rupani card ultimately deliver or will Patidars finally bid good bye to BJP? The electoral politics of Gujarat would hinge on these questions apart from how Congress recoups or how strongly Aam Aadmi Party makes its debut in the coastal state.