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Gujarat Operation and the Bharatiya Janata Party

Radhika Ramaseshan (ramaseshan.radhika@gmail.com) is consulting editor, Business Standard.

The impending election to three Rajya Sabha seats in Gujarat has laid bare the Bharatiya Janata Party's strategy to use every opportunity to win electoral battles at every level and at the same time demolish the opposition.

 

Image: File (At the foundation stone laying ceremony of new BJP headquarters). Credit: Narendra Modi [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) strategy to spirit away heavy -hitters  from the Congress party and regional parties who are endowed with a significant social base is not new. In 1998, current home minister Rajnath Singh, who was at the helm of the Uttar Pradesh BJP, conceived and executed Operation Shakti (Operation Might) that saw the splintering of the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) into independent entities, and propped up a minority BJP government in Lucknow (Ramakrishnan 1997). In 2009, the BJP launched Operation Kamala (Operation Lotus) in Karnataka to entice elected representatives of other parties from every tier of governance, including panchayats, in an attempt to spread itself before even properly finding its feet (Shastri 2010). Both the experiments fetched mixed results in the ensuing elections. 

Lately, Gujarat has dominated the news because BJP president Amit Shah, backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has resolved to defeat Ahmed Patel, the right-hand man of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her political secretary for years, in the Rajya Sabha election scheduled to be held on 8 August 2017. Patel’s tenure ends next month. In the normal order of politics, his re-election was a given because the Congress has enough votes in the legislature to see him through.  Three seats from Gujarat to the Rajya Sabha have fallen vacant out of the total number of 10 seats from other states.

When the BJP initially announced the names of two candidates—Smriti Z Irani and Shah himself—for the Rajya Sabha elections, there was speculation in the media that it might decide not to contest the third seat as Patel was “too formidable” a name to be entrapped in the stratagems of the BJP. However, party insiders in the know unambiguously stated that they would go for the third seat, make it a “fight to the finish” and defeat Patel, knowing the “high stakes” the battle entailed in the prelude to the Gujarat assembly polls in November–December this year.

For Modi and Shah, Patel’s “defeat” in an indirect election—obviously facilitated by the anticipated cross-voting by Congress legislators with the help of Shankersinh Vaghela,  a former BJP leader who joined the Congress and recently parted ways with it—was expected to obliterate the remotest scrap of “challenge” from the opposition (Bhatt 2017). But has the country’s reigning duo factored in the churn in Gujarat that was triggered by the agitation for education and job reservations from the powerful Patels (who constitute the BJP’s backbone since it won its first election in 1995), the persecution of Dalits and the discontent among the textile traders after the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST)?

Whatever the BJP's calculations, the “fight” against Patel rattled the Congress so much that it herded many of its legislators to a resort in Karnataka, among the few states where it is in power, to stem the poaching. Disastrously for the Congress, Patel’s opponent for the third Rajya Sabha seat is his protégé, Balwantsinh Rajput. A successful industrialist and a Congress funder, Rajput is also Vaghela’s brother-in-law. However, their kinship is less of a factor in Rajput’s defection; what spurred the move was the perception that Patel’s overweening influence over the Gujarat Congress had  yielded no electoral dividends for several years. If anything, Rajput, like others, felt that Patel worked against leaders with a mass following, such as Vaghela. The latter was viewed with suspicion because he was earlier tethered to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s ideology, went public with his disgruntlement against the Congress and encouraged his “loyalists” to rebel and quit the party. For Shah, Vaghela’s script was perfect because the theme of the mentee falling out with his mentor was in sync with his blueprint to finish off the Congress.

There was a subtext to the BJP’s adoption of Rajput as its nominee. Modi and Shah were convinced that the relentless pursuit of the cases implicating them,  that related to the 2002 communal violence or the killings of Sohrabuddin Sheikh and Kausar Bi, Tulsiram Prajapati and Ishrat Jahan in alleged staged encounters during the United Progressive Alliance’s tenure was commissioned and monitored by Patel on Sonia Gandhi’s prodding. Shah was jailed and subsequently externed for a long period from Gujarat. 

If Patel is indeed worsted, the BJP has its “victory”  lines in place because his “defeat” would become another trope in Modi and Shah’s “Congress mukt Bharat” (a Congress-free India) narrative.

The Congress was either caught napping or forsook its instincts for realpolitik, or worse, abandoned the battle-ground in Gujarat when Vaghela and Shah were planning their move. It has not even revisited the past to understand the single-minded way the BJP identifies its targets and moves to demolish them. In the 2012 elections, for instance, the BJP's strategists were resolute from day one that two Congress leaders, Arjun Modhwadia, then the state president, and Shaktisinh Gohil, the opposition leader, must be trounced. They succeeded. Modhwadia and Gohil were the spearheads of the Congress offensive against Modi. Vaghela was not on the BJP’s hit list because the word was that he was marked out as a “weak link” in the Congress chain of attack and had, therefore, to be handled with velvet gloves because he could be “useful” in future.   

The BJP’s poach-and-split operations of the past did not end happily. In 1998, after breaking the Congress and BSP and installing its chief minister, Kalyan Singh, it gained in the Lok Sabha election that followed, augmenting its voting  percentage from 33.43% in 1996 to 36.48%. But in the 1999 election, its vote share in UP dipped to as low as 27.64%. The drop was attributed to the skulduggery it used to keep itself in power after issuing lofty moral averments.

In Karnataka, the machinations resulted in bitter internal feuds, arising from the compulsions of appeasing the new entrants at the cost of ignoring the old-timers. The BJP was routed in the 2013 elections (Ali 2009). From a high of 110 seats and a vote share of 33.93% in 2008, the BJP plummeted to 40 seats and a vote share of 20.07% in 2013.

Modi and Shah were not present even as bit players when Operation Shakti and Operation Kamala were staged. Gujarat is their fiefdom. Shah has done everything it takes to end the long hegemony of the Congress party over every power structure and source of patronage. Shah first went for the rural bodies, underpinning his strategy on the belief that for every elected village representative, there was an equally powerful and resourceful leader who did not make the cut but was unprepared to wait for another five years. Such defeated and discontented pradhans were approached and set up as a parallel pull of attraction, creating a pretty unassailable rural network for the BJP (Ramesh 2014). It was not as though Shah delivered the coup de grace to the Congress in the panchayats.   From time to time, the Congress bounced back in the rural bodies as in the elections held in December 2015 against the backdrop of the agitation for reservations for the Patels and the Gujarat government’s crackdown on the agitators. The Congress bested the BJP in the zilla parishads and the taluka panchayats by a long shot (Rawat and Ramaseshan 2015).       

Next, Shah unseated the Congress from the sports bodies, especially in cricket and chess.

Finally, he laid siege on the powerful cooperatives that were a pillar propping up Gujarat’s economy that were in the grip of the Congress. He put himself up as a candidate in an election to a primary cooperative body in 1998 , won and became the president of the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank, India’s biggest cooperative bank. Traditionally, such banks were controlled by Gujarat’s dominant castes slike the Patels, Kshatriyas and the Gadariyas (shepherds). Shah was the first Bania to break into an impervious zone (Ramesh 2014).

Before every election, to the assembly and to Parliament, Amit Shah used the by-now familiar tactic of weaning away one or more influential leaders from the Congress. In 2012, it was Narhari Amin, who derived much of his clout by being a former president of the Gujarat Cricket Association and a former vice-president of the Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI). Before the 2014 elections, Shah ensnared Vithalbhai Hansrajbhai Radadiya, a Porbandar strongman who never lost an election. Radadiya not only won Porbandar but also helped the BJP secure the neighbouring Lok Sabha seats.

The Congress was optimistic about Ahmed Patel fending off the BJP’s predatory moves on its legislators and pulling through. Shah had once tried to defeat another Congress notable, Kapil Sibal, in a Rajya Sabha election in UP in June 2016. It was a tenuous attempt that saw him field a Mumbai entrepreneur of Gujarat origin, Preeti Mahapatra as an Independent against Sibal. The latter, who had lost the previous Lok Sabha poll from Delhi, just about made it with a margin of seven votes (Rashid 2016).

Shah’s long and intimate association with Gujarat’s politics, the  dwindling status of the Congress coupled with the prospect of the rebels being “rewarded” with BJP tickets in the assembly poll, the caste kinship that Vaghela is playing on with Rajput leaders from the Congress and above all, the “killer instinct” with which Shah has jumped into the high-stake contest have cast doubts over Patel’s chances of getting re-elected. But if the BJP imagines that a “victory” in this joust would enhance the odds in the assembly polls, it may need a re-think because its insiders admitted that quite apart from the objective circumstances, the degree of anti-incumbency against several of its legislators was “too serious” to be sidestepped.

 

References

Ali, Sowmya (2009): “BJP’s ‘Poach-all’ Operation in Karnataka,” Mail Today, 15 May, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/BJPs+poach-all+operation+in+Karnataka....

Bhatt, Sheela (2017): “BJP President Amit Shah Takes Battle to Rajya Sabha,” NewsX, 27 July, http://www.newsx.com/national/70304-bjp-president-amit-shah-takes-battle-to-rajya-sabha.

Ramakrishnan, Venkitesh (1997): “A Pyrrhic Victory,” Frontline, Vol 14, No 22, pp 1-14, http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl1422/14220200.htm.   

Ramesh, P R (2014): “His Master’s Mind,” Open Magazine, 11 April, http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/india/his-master-s-mind.

Rashid, Omar (2016): “Despite BJP’s Strategy, Sibal Wins RS Seat from UP,”  Hindu, 11 June, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/Despite-BJP%E2%80%99s-strategy-Sib....

Rawat, Basant and Radhika Ramaseshan (2015): “BJP Bloodied on Modi Turf,” Telegraph, 3 December, https://www.telegraphindia.com/1151203/jsp/frontpage/story_56457.jsp.

Shastri, Sandeep (2010): “Karnataka’s Please-all Party,” Indian Express, 8 Oct, http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/karnataka-s-pleaseall-party/694299.

 

 


 
Updated On : 2nd Aug, 2017

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