ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

View from the Ground: Gujarat Elections Defy Easy Predictions

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

 

The results of the Gujarat assembly elections are definitely not a foregone conclusion, especially for the Bharatiya Janata Party. This article takes a nuanced look at the factors that will affect the final outcome on 18 December even as it carries voices at the ground level in the state in the run-up to the polls on 9 and 14 December.

 

Weeks before Gujarat voted, Kamlesh Patel was weighed down with worries, clueless about seeking a resolution to the problems before him. He was tasked to execute the fiats issued by Gandhinagar and Delhi and not take initiatives. Kamlesh is the former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president of the Lakhtar division in Surendranagar district, the gateway to the Saurashtra region. Lakhtar town is part of the Dasada reserved Scheduled Caste (SC) seat that the BJP has won since 1990. Just once in 2002 the seat had gone to the Congress.

Dasada has 30,000 Patel voters but Kamlesh was directed to keep off his community which, he admitted, had become so hostile to the BJP that he felt unwanted in its company. This was so, he says, even after he visited every Patel home in the neighbourhood following the violent stir for reservation, spearheaded by the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) in August 2015. The community was hurt and angry after 13 persons were killed by the police, homes were searched and PAAS activists were rounded up.

The Peril of Ignoring Patels

In the prelude to the assembly polls, the BJP asked Kamlesh to concentrate on coaxing the support of the other communities such as the backward caste Koli–Patels, the Kshatriyas and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the upper-caste Darbaris and the Dalits. However, he quoted an old political truism that said one Patel vote had the power of three votes because a Patel influenced at least one or more of his farm hands, cast a second “bogus” vote and topped off the charade by exercising his own franchise. Therefore, Kamlesh’s argument was that “ignoring” the Patels would be akin to nearly losing the election or facing a vastly reduced mandate. Kamlesh conceded that reaching out to the second variegated grouping was “futile” because historically, they were “mostly” affiliated with the Congress, barring the non-Kshatriya OBCs. This time, even the non-Kshatriyas, “swayed” by Alpesh Thakor, the founder of the OBCs, SCs and Scheduled Tribes (STs) Ekta Manch and the Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena, were gravitating towards the Congress, he said. Thakor has joined the Congress and is contesting from Radhanpura in north Gujarat.

Kamlesh was beset with more concerns. The Patels throughout Gujarat were the largest users of Android phones and the principal consumers of social media apps because they could afford to download these, unlike the OBCs and Dalits. He wondered aloud if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had thought of how Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp would recoil on the BJP when he turned generous with talktime and the use of 3 GB (gigabit) data as part of the Digital India Programme. Modi’s tech sops became an instant bestseller in Gujarat because he had deployed social media successfully in the 2012 assembly and the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, raising an independent office to conceptualise and execute his ideas on the Internet. Modi’s success story spawned imitators across the political spectrum. Among them was Hardik Patel, the young founder of PAAS.

After the PAAS’s uprising, the young Patels in the villages banded themselves in groups of 10 or 12 to dedicate themselves full-time to “waging a war” against the BJP government and canvassing support for the Congress on the net. So, even while the farmers were busy supervising agricultural operations, they took time off to connect long distance with one another on the social media and gave traction to the “movement” against the BJP establishment. “We have lost the battle on the net,” rued Kamlesh.

The BJP was worried about the infusion of populism in the elections by the Congress, something that was anathema to Modi. In the 2012 Uttar Pradesh election, wherein the Samajwadi Party had unrolled a packet of goodies such as free laptops for students and a monthly unemployment dole, Modi reportedly scoffed at them, saying such moves would hurt the “self-respect” of the targeted recipients. The Congress has promised to waive off farmers’ loans and offered unemployment monthly doles of ₹3,000 for undergraduates, ₹3,500 for graduates and ₹4,000 for postgraduates. In an ambience of economic slack and agrarian despair, the BJP feared there were enough and more takers for the Congress’s “lollipops,” “self-respect” or not.

The Congress’s use of “soft Hindutva” in its campaign bothered Kamlesh and the BJP for a deeper political reason. In the past, the BJP leveraged phrases like maut ka saudagar (merchant of death) used by the Congress President Sonia Gandhi to decry Modi in her election campaign to its advantage, suggesting that by using these the Congress had deliberately revived memories of the 2002 communal carnage in the Muslims to polarise and swing their votes. This time, the BJP noted with dismay that the Congress had avoided biting the Hindu–Muslim bait. So far Rahul Gandhi had steered clear of the Congress’s de rigueur interactions with the Muslim clergy and the residents of the minority areas.

The BJP’s exertions to cast the discourse in the Hindu–Muslim polemics of the past with the insinuations about Rahul’s religious antecedent (he had allegedly signed in as a “non-Hindu” while visiting the Somnath temple), the resolve to bring in a bill outlawing the practice of “triple talaq” in Parliament and rekindling remembrances of communal conflicts and curfews in Ahmedabad in the pre-Modi era have been supplanted by the caste fault lines that are out in the open. Kamlesh’s statements and admissions reflected his dilemma arising from a sense of alienation in his community of Patels and the compulsion of being a member of a larger “Hindutva” family. To him, the quandary seemed irreconcilable despite the BJP and Modi’s attempts to invoke the old shibboleths of “Gujarati pride” (or asmita) and pan-nationalism and foreground the “Hindutva” trope in their discourse. A senior national office-bearer said,

What is Gujarati pride? It is nationalism manifest in the visuals we saw from Manila (where Modi attended the India–ASEAN and East Asia summits in early November). See how intently (Donald) Trump (US President) and (Shinzo) Abe (Japan’s Prime Minister) listened to our PM. Casteism can be overcome by nationalism because we are living in a New India created by Modi.

If conflating a state election with the “nationalist” metaphor and exaggerating its scale and importance to the size of a national referendum was one facet of the BJP’s strategy, the other aspect was availing an organisational edifice raised on a solid foundation.

Agrarian Crisis and GST

To begin with, the BJP’s foot soldiers, characteristically on the move from the word go before an election, were unusually low-key and passive this time. Before Diwali, they were privy to reports that the advent of the goods and services tax (GST) regime, coupled with the aftermath of demonetisation, had detracted from the celebratory mood that ushers in the new year in Gujarat. “There was no sparkle,” a worker said. Dampening the ambience was the acute agrarian crisis that the villagers were confronted with. The crisis was exacerbated with a below-par minimum statutory price for cash crops —₹800 for a kg of cotton as compared with ₹1,300 given by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government (Langa 2017a)—the closure of small and medium units impacted by the GST pressures, the poor trade in wholesale spice “mandis” that resulted in low pickups of produces from farmers Ramaseshan (2017) damage to crops from flooding, and the non-payment of insurance to farmers, although the premiums were taken away from their accounts in the nationalised banks.

In mid-November, the BJP’s central minders specially deployed from Delhi by the President Amit Shah figured out that the workers would have to be galvanised. The members of Parliament (MPs) and the state leaders marshalled from outside Gujarat, were ordered to give pep talks, focused on the centre’s “achievements” built around Modi so that he was again elevated to the stature of a demigod on home turf. Interestingly, although Shah had long ago declared the incumbent Chief Minister Vijay Rupani as the “leader” of the elections, the inconspicuous Rupani was perceived as a Shah proxy in Gujarat without an independent standing. This was unlike his predecessor Anandiben Patel who came across as a no-nonsense administrator although she too derived her position from being a Modi protégé. The BJP changed track and projected Rupani and the Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel in equal measure, ostensibly to try and placate the Patels. However, it was clear that Modi would be the lead star.

Ranjanben Dhananjay Bhatt, the Vadodara MP, detailed the BJP’s organisational methodology in a conversation with this author. She said that Shah’s penchant for micromanagement had three vital components in a vistaar yojana (blueprint for a constituency): the shakti kendra (locus of strength), the panna pramukh (page chief) and jan sampark (popular contact). The shakti kendra was made up of centres that integrated three to seven booths and each booth had 15–20 panna pramukhs. Each pramukh, typically drawn from the area they were assigned, was put in charge of 48 voters, covering roughly 15 houses. The houses were identified according to the political party the residents were known to vote for. The BJP’s corporators and councillors, some in office since 2002, helped the process of identification. The pramukh, armed with the names of the family members and their phone numbers, prioritised the “BJP homes” over those of the opposition’s and met the members at least thrice to ensure they stayed steadfastly loyal to the BJP. “This is not to say we overlook the homes of the non-BJP voters and the Muslims,” Ranjanben clarified.

Shah’s sole dictum to the workers was to mobilise themselves and their families to cast their votes before 10 am and then galvanise the others. The booth committees are active even when there are no elections in organising festivals and celebrating party anniversaries and leaders’ birthdays (Jha 2017).

Shah is wedded to Chanakya’s political precepts (Chanakya “niti”) and believes that for realpolitik to succeed and endure, the means justify the ends. As Modi’s principal political operator when Modi was the Gujarat chief minister, Shah quickly deduced that winning elections was not the only essence of wielding power. To him, it was imperative to enlarge and consolidate the BJP’s clout by taking over the Congress-controlled cooperatives and sports bodies, especially in cricket and chess (Ramesh 2014). Shah, wrote Ramesh, was

in charge of an operation that resembled aggressive raids in the corporate world, and, after sustained effort, the BJP managed to dislodge the Congress from all sports bodies. This denied the rival party an important source of patronage. (Ramesh 2014)

The same strategy was used to wrench control over Gujarat’s powerful cooperatives (Ramesh 2014). Shah tested his skills by himself fighting his first election to a primary cooperative body in 1998, four years after the BJP came to power in Gujarat. In 1999, he became president of the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank, India’s biggest cooperative bank. He demolished the myth that a contestant had to belong to a dominant caste like the Patels and Kshatriyas to control a cooperative body. Shah is a Bania, a caste that does not mould electoral politics.

It was in this context that Shah underscored the significance of weaning away Ramsinh Parmar from the Congress to the BJP in August 2017 before the assembly polls. A legislator from Thasra in the Kheda district, a seat of the White Revolution, Parmar was not just another person deserting the Congress in search of greener pastures (Rajshekhar 2017). As chairman of the Kaira milk cooperative, he was the last standing non-BJP chairman in the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, that now comprises 18 milk unions, each functioning in a separate region and each helmed by a BJP leader. The federation’s chairman and vice-chairman, Jetha Parmar and V C Jetha Bharwad belong to the BJP. With Parmar’s departure, the Congress has relinquished control over Anand, Vadodara and Panchmahal district cooperatives as well (Langa 2017b).

Dairy Cooperatives

The Congress has not evolved a strategy to recompense the losses resulting from the takeover of the dairy cooperatives by the BJP in central Gujarat. Instead, it targeted another vote bank. It recycled an old tactic to keep the tribal votes on its side, flagging the Gujarat government and the centre’s alleged unwillingness to hand over land to the tribals under the STs and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 because they wanted to parcel away land to industries (Langa 2017b).

The milk cooperatives are a mainstay of Gujarat’s economy (Rajshekhar 2017). In 2016–17, the federation reported ₹27,043 crore as sales turnover. With farmers earning ₹36.6 per litre on an average, Amul pumps in ₹65.8 crore daily into the hands of 3.6 million large and small farmers across Gujarat. Also, as members of the district cooperatives, the dairy farmers also get an annual dividend. “Amul is the biggest employer, has solid financial relations with the farmers and is a vital linkage with the farmers of this region. That is why Parmar is like a diamond for us,” explained Anil Bhosale, the BJP mayor of Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur, tasked to take care of the milk belt of central Gujarat.

If organisational preparedness and amassing Congress heavyweights were the key ingredients to electoral success, the BJP appeared unbeatable in these elections because the Congress was weak on both scores. Decades of being out of power had sapped the vitals in the Congress organisation and despite the confidence and energy manifest in the Vice President Rahul Gandhi during electioneering, the party as a whole had still not projected itself as a robust opponent imbued with the strength and credibility to unseat the BJP. It almost seemed as if Rahul pulled in one direction and the Congress in another.

Shah’s predatory way of spiriting away Congress leaders and “rewarding” some of them with tickets demoralised the BJP’s committed workers. Gopal Shah, a BJP general secretary of the Kheda district in central Gujarat, made no bones about his disillusionment with the leadership. Shah said,

The BJP always took care of those working 24 × 7 in the organisation. But when we approached our leaders for tickets in these elections, we were told your job is to work for the candidates. Does this mean that those like me who gave my blood and sweat to the party will have to slog to see a Congress defector win? The same Congress that I fought against for years?

The mood among the BJP workers oscillated according to the political ambience pervading a region. Where the people had largely turned antagonistic towards the BJP, the workers retreated into a shell. Where people were more hospitable towards the party, the workers recovered their enthusiasm and aggression.

Worker–Voter Correlation

Kalol, which is 32 km north of Ahmedabad, is a semi-industrialised town that had seen better days when its six textile mills were operational and another unit, manufacturing plastic water tanks, worked to optimum capacity. Five of the mills have closed and the water tank manufacturing plant has scaled down production and sacked a third of the workers. But the migrants from Uttar Pradesh, who make up a sizeable chunk of Kalol’s population and monopolise small trade, wondered why the Gujarati-speaking residents had turned against the BJP. “Modi gave them everything. This place is like heaven when I compare it with UP,” said Ram Sagar, a migrant from Varanasi. Not surprisingly, the BJP’s cadre were more focused on consolidating the votes of the migrants.

North of Kalol, Unjha in Mehsana district classically illustrates all that’s gone wrong for the BJP since the PAAS agitation. Unjha is home to Asia’s biggest spice market and is a large exporter of tobacco. The traders are Patels who have voted only for the BJP since the 1980s. The Congress won this assembly seat twice, in 1962 and 1972. The Congress was a bad word for the traders who never forgave the party for pandering to the non-Patels in the 1980s through the then chief minister Madhav Singh Solanki’s KHAM (Kshatriya–Harijan–Adivasi–Muslim) social formula.

But GST has muddied the waters for the BJP. The traders were furious because the GST imposed on exports was supposed to be refunded within a deadline. They said four months later, the centre owed them in the range of ₹1 crore to ₹1.5 crore. The “cash crunch” has curtailed the volume of business and exports they traded in by nearly 50%.

In turn, the cutback has impacted the farmers who grow and supply the produce to Unjha’s wholesalers. They said the traders were picking up 40% to 50% of their produce. In the past, they received full payment in one go. Now the trader told the farmer he can pay in small instalments until his export refunds were reimbursed and he felt financially at ease.

In Jetalvasana village (Visnagar district), largely inhabited by Patels, the farmers warned they would not allow BJP workers to enter. “There’s no question of the Modi magic working in these parts because he has ruined our livelihood,” a peasant said. The bullet train, due to be commissioned between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, has become an eyesore for the farmers since the project was launched in September 2016 by Modi and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.

The voices of pain were most audible in north Gujarat and Saurashtra’s countryside where people said they experienced the most acute agrarian distress in recent times. In Panshina village (Limbdi “taluka,” Surendranagar district) spoke of how the unprecedentedly heavy rains this year had destroyed much of their cotton, groundnut, wheat and bajra crops. Their hopes of getting the insurance under the centre’s crop insurance scheme were snuffed out because while the premium was deducted from each farmer’s bank account to the tune of ₹1,200–₹5,000, the insurance payments were not deposited till date. Pankaj Makhwana, a Panshina farmer, said he sent letters bearing his “sarpanch’s” thumb impression to the Prime Minister, Gujarat’s agriculture minister and his bank’s regional headquarter in Gandhinagar but none of them got back.

This was why in October, when Modi laid the foundation stone for a greenfield airport to service Saurashtra at Chotila, 27 km from Rajkot, and addressed a meeting of farmers, the response was reportedly “tepid.” None other than a local BJP leader recounted,

We mobilised crowds from Morbi, Rajkot, Jasdan and Botad in 800 buses. It was a nightmare because the security staff took over the highway hotels and had the shops and smaller restaurants shut. The PM began his speech, asking the audience of farmers if they had ever imagined they would see planes in their neighbourhood. Half the farmers left in disgust.

In village after village, the refrain was that it was not only the Patels but the farmers of every caste, whether big, medium and marginal, who had turned against the BJP because Modi had “abandoned” them once he moved to Delhi. They said Modi forgot that Gujarat was primarily rural and agrarian and not a state of gigantic industries and glitzy cities and, therefore, the “kheduth” (peasant) and not the “udyogpati” (industrialist) was Gujarat’s first citizen. They stated with conviction that the issues the BJP continued to flog as its “major achievements” such as the Jyotigram Yojana for rural electrification and bringing Narmada waters were appreciated and endorsed by the electorate in the past three elections but were not “strong” enough to pull them to the booths this time. They said that the Unitetd States (US) and Israel, countries that Modi venerated, had “pampered” their farmers with subsidies and incentives galore while Modi only “courted” industry.

BJP’s Prospects

What are the factors that could salvage the BJP’s prospects and allow it to retain its 2012 tally of 115 seats or improve upon marginally?

A split in Patel votes would be the best news for the BJP. Signs of a division were evident in south Gujarat and parts of central Gujarat. In Surat, the seat of the textile and diamond cutting–polishing trade, two years after the PAAS agitation after which they beat a retreat, the BJP’s candidates from the Patel-dominated constituencies managed to rustle up an impressive crowd while filing their nominations on 22 November. Varachha Road on the Surat–Ahmedabad expressway is supposed to be a bellwether of the “Patel mood.” Here, the BJP’s sitting member of the legislative assembly, Kumar Kanani, who supported PAAS spearhead Hardik, was confident his “work would speak for me” and the Patels would vote for him (Misra and Saiyed 2017).

Surat’s Patels largely hailed from Saurashtra towns, Amreli and Bhavnagar, and retained their embryonic links. They were aware of the problems bedevilling the farmers back home and wondered if the UPA government paid ₹30,000 for 20 maunds of peanuts, why was the Modi government giving ₹16,000? But at the Hira Market inside the city, also known as Mini Market, the Saurashtra Patels continued to back the BJP, reposing hope in the centre’s “sincerity” to sort out the roadblocks in GST and reimburse the export refunds. More to the point, their support continued because they sounded “disillusioned” with Hardik and his proximity to the Congress.

In a few Saurashtra constituencies, local politicians were frankly sceptical over how the tie-up between Hardik and Alpesh would work on the ground because they belonged to traditionally antagonistic castes. Hardik is a Patel and Alpesh, a backward caste Thakore. Thakrisibhai Bhagwanji, the Lakhtar “taluka” president of the Congress said, “The Patels are opportunists. They are fighting not to get reservation but to end reservation for the backward castes. Alpesh shouldn’t be seen too much in Hardik’s company because I know in the end the Patels will vote BJP and not the Congress.”

There was a sense that if the BJP was voted out or returned diminished in Gujarat, it would reflect poorly on Modi and the centre. Pankaj Patel, a young jeweller in Surat, spoke of the contradictions influencing his choice. “Modi’s work is good, as chief minister and as Prime Minister. But the demonetisation move was a shocker. My heart’s still with the BJP but my head tells me Modi needs to be taught a lesson, he must hit a speed brake,” said Pankaj.

On the other hand, Jaideep Patel, a builder in Sanand (Ahmedabad district), said with a tinge of remorse, “This time we want the BJP out. In 2019, I will again vote Modi.”

None of those who expressed vehemence against the BJP had apparently given a thought to the implications of having a non-BJP government in Gandhinagar while the BJP ruled Delhi until 2019 and the possibility of the Modi dispensation then being “uncooperative” towards a state that was the recipient of Delhi’s munificence for three years and more.

Conversely, some voters felt that while dislodging the BJP in Gujarat was “unfeasible” at this point, the verdict must ensure that the Congress emerged as a stronger opposition sufficiently empowered to veto the BJP’s “anti-people” policies and laws. K M Patel, a Surat resident from Bhavnagar who owned a transport business, said, “Modi refuses to recognise the fact that 60% to 70% of India is poor.”

References

Jha, Prashant (2017): Gujarat Elections: Amit Shah’s Strategy for BJP Focuses on Poll Day Mobilisation,” Hindustan Times, 14 November.

Langa, Mahesh (2017a): “Bleak Times in Bellwether Saurashtra,” Hindu, 23 November.

— (2017b): “Old Certitudes Vanish in Central Gujarat, Hindu, 25 November.

Misra, Leena and Kamal Saiyed (2017): “Gujarat Elections: In Diamond Hub in Surat, Noteban and GST Are Rough Edges,” Indian Express, 28 November.

Rajshekhar, M (2017): “The Amul Story: How Politics is Hurting the Economics of Gujarat’s Milk Cooperatives,” Scroll.in, 1 December.

Ramesh, P R (2014): “His Master’s Mind,” Open magazine, 11 April.

Ramaseshan, Radhika (2017): “GST Maze Engulfs Gujarat Elections, Overtakes Quota Demand for Patidars,” Business Standard, 26 November.

Updated On : 11th Dec, 2017

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top