Will voters of Gujarat fulfil the not-so-secret desires of Modi?

Shekhar Iyer
05 Nov 2022
Will voters of Gujarat fulfil the not-so-secret desires of Modi?

Narendra Modi speaking during the celebrations of Rashtriya Ekta Diwas, celebrated to mark the birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, at Kevadia in Narmada district on Monday.

New Delhi: A foregone surmise among the pundits and punters is that the BJP should win comfortably for the seventh time in Gujarat. The people of Gujarat still look at Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the icon of the soil who has to be supported in every assembly or Lok Sabha election.

In other words, not even his opponents think that Modi-driven BJP can actually lose Gujarat easily in the two-phase assembly polls on December 1 and 5.

True, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) may have forayed into Gujarat's urban centres, offering itself as an alternative to the BJP. The Congress appears to be far from in fighting gear to challenge the BJP.

In fact, AAP leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's campaign in Gujarat is that a vote for Congress candidates could well be a vote for the BJP because they may gravitate towards it.

If so, why does the BJP still appear as anxious as ever about the outcome?

Definitely, there is a sense of palpitation among local BJP leaders as to how the anti-incumbency factors could damage their prospects in certain areas.

Impact of Morbi bridge tragedy on Gujarat Elections 2022

After being in power for 27 years, the BJP is riddled with charges of inept governance and irregularities at all levels.

The BJP won the assembly elections of 1995, 1998, 2002, 2007, 2012, and 2017.

Around 500 people were on a suspension bridge in Morbi when the cables supporting it snapped, sending people crashing into the Machchhu river below last week.

With 140 lives lost, innumerable people still feared missing and 180 people rescued after the collapse of a British-era bridge, the mishap damaged the Gujarat model.

Modi was very upset that local BJP leaders in Gujarat had let him down by their style of functioning when he is doing all he can to get the BJP elected for the seventh time.

Every time he has gone to the state, his campaign has focused on his own leadership and the drive it has provided for the BJP government, which has been in power since 1995. Modi feels the BJP has to brace up for the damage done by local leaders.

The bridge could take the weight of only a few people. It had been shut for seven months for repairs. It was reopened to the public on October 26, the Gujarati New Year, without inspection or a fitness certificate from the civic authorities.

Seizing upon the opportunity provided by the collapse of the bridge, the opposition has highlighted the BJP's record in infrastructure. It has been pressing for the arrest of the owners of the company, who are said to be close to local BJP leaders, for the kind of renovation work done on the bridge.

Modi knows the extent of corruption in Gujarat since he shifted to Delhi to become PM in 2014. That is why the Vijay Rupani ministry had to be replaced by a ministry of new faces led by Bhupendra Patel.

The disaster in Morbi only exposed the level of rampant nexus and negligence and the propensity of local leaders to commit irregularities in civic bodies, which have been under the BJP's rule for more than 15 years.

The Morbi incident poured cold water on Modi's plans.

Many sitting MLAs may face the axe

Many ex-ministers fear that Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah will certainly go for a surgical solution. Several sitting BJP MLAs could be dropped and replaced by newcomers and fresh faces.

Did not the BJP replace the entire government of Vijay Rupani with a greenhorn Bhupendra Patel last year?

A battery of new faces, coupled with Modi's aggressive campaign, can help the BJP tide over this gap.

Modi has had a not-so-secret desire that the BJP must better the record of the Congress of 1985 when it won 149 of the total 182 assembly seats in Gujarat.

The Congress had made a record haul of 149 under the leadership of Madhavsinh Solanki in that year. He succeeded in cobbling together a social-political alliance referred to as KHAM (representing the communities of Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim).

Of course, since then, the politics of Gujarat has undergone several changes, particularly after 2001 when Modi became chief minister and the state witnessed horrible riots of 2002 which left a deep divide among the Hindus and Muslims.

Subsequently, Modi worked on what he called the "Gujarat model" of governance even as the BJP worked on the lacuna of the KHAM alliance. This alliance had excluded the Patidars or Patels, whom the BJP began to woo as a counter to KHAM and it rode to power on the support of this community, which is spread across the state.

In the 2017 polls, it was the lack of the Patel community's support for the BJP on the issue of quota that cost it dearly.  

Its tally of seats plummeted to 99. Led by a young Patel leader Hardik Patel, the agitation had brought to light the distress and alienation of the Patels in the rural and urban areas. The Patel community forms 12-14 per cent of the State population.

However, this time, the BJP is confident that the Patel community will vote for its candidates en masse.

Today, Hardik Patel, the face of the Patel agitation during the 2017 elections, has left the Congress party. He joined the BJP in June this year.

If the BJP fields a younger and fresh lot of candidates, it may contain the fallout of the anti-incumbency issues. BJP managers say the impact of the Morbi episode may affect a few seats in Saurashtra.

Seen in this context, the BJP's best hope may be to win 122 seats, which will still be a big improvement over the 2017 tally though not close to what Modi desires.  

In 2017, all the 29 candidates fielded by AAP had also lost their deposits as the Congress' tally surged to 77.

This time, in the absence of strategists like Ahmed Patel, a long-time aide of the Gandhi family, the Congress may win only between 15 and 30.

On the other hand, Kejriwal claims that the AAP will capture the imagination of Gujarati voters who are impressed with his party's work in Delhi and Punjab. He is looking at 30% votes for the AAP, which will swallow 10-20 seats currently held by the Congress.

In the 2017 assembly polls, the BJP got nearly 49.05% while the Congress ended with 41.44% of the votes. It was also the first election since Modi shifted to Delhi as PM after serving as CM for 13 years.

In 2012, when Modi was still CM, the BJP had won 115 seats, securing 47.85% of votes. The Congress won 61 seats with 38.93% votes in its favour. 

In the  Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 60.1% of the votes, winning all 26 seats in 2014 and 2019. Congress got 32.6% votes.

Gujarat is BJP's laboratory?

The BJP first came to power in full strength in Gujarat in 1995 after Shankersinh Vaghela rebelled against the Keshubhai Patel government. 

Eventually, Vaghela’s rebellion lost steam and Keshubhai returned to power. 

Modi replaced Keshubhai after the Kutch earthquake left a trail of destruction and a litany of complaints in 2001.

An incident of arson in the Sabarmati Express, followed by communal riots, changed the BJP's fortunes in Gujarat. The BJP won the 2002 Assembly elections, with 127 of the total 182 seats in its kitty. it secured 49.8% votes. The Congress was reduced to 51 seats. This was the highest number of seats won by the BJP.

In 2007, the BJP under Modi returned to power with a tally that fell to 117 seats (49.12% votes), against the Congress’s 59. The 2012 elections saw the BJP hold on to its lead, with 115 seats, with the Congress climbing just two more, to 61.

In 2014, when Modi shifted to Delhi as PM, he chose his confidante Anandiben Patel as his successor. After the agitation for quota by the Patidars, Anandiben was replaced with Vijay Rupani as CM. The BJP went to the assembly polls with Rupani as its face but the tally came down to 99.

The Congress did very well with 77 seats. Why? One, it was for the first time Rahul Gandhi spent three days each in four regions of Gujarat and addressed each region according to the issues they faced. Earlier, Sonia, Rajiv Gandhi or Indira Gandhi or others would address a couple of rallies. Rahul interacted freely with the crowds. 

Secondly, the Congress got a boost with Hardik Patel (a Patidar), Alpesh Thakor (an OBC) and Jignesh Mevani (a Dalit), joining hands on a common platform. 

They spoke on issues of increasing unemployment because of jobless growth, expensive education, deteriorating health infrastructure, crony capitalism and shrinking land for agriculture, and usurping lands of tribals. 

Now the trio have lost much of their traction.

The old issues are again dominating the Opposition campaign. However, this time, Rahul Gandhi is yet to begin the campaign in Gujarat. The Congress does appear rudderless.

On its part, the BJP has had five "Gaurav Yatras," covering 144 of the 182 seats. 

In 2002, Modi had taken out the first Gaurav Yatra after Gujarat's image was sullied by the riots.

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