Congress and caste: Is this why PM Narendra Modi is visiting Gujarat so frequently?

By: 9 months ago
Congress and caste: Is this why PM Narendra Modi is visiting Gujarat so frequently?

Absence of Narendra Modi in Gujarat after he became the prime minister created a leadership vacuum in state BJP. The situation was exploited by the Congress in local body elections and also by caste-based leaders. Together, they pose a serious challenge to the BJP in Gujarat election.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Gujarat today - third time in October, ninth time this year and about a dozenth time in the past one-and-a-half years. Narendra Modi's Gujarat itinerary includes inauguration and and laying down of foundation stones of a number of worth over Rs 1,140 crore in Bhavnagar and Vadodara districts.

This could be PM Modi's last visit to Gujarat before the Election Commission announces poll dates for the state. The poll panel has already clarified that the election process in Gujarat will be over by December 18, the date of counting of votes for Himachal Pradesh polls.

PM Narendra Modi previously visited Gujarat on October 8 and also on October 16. The increased frequency of PM Modi's visit to Gujarat is clearly a part of the BJP's in the state, where it is facing some serious challenges.

Demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax did not go down well with the Gujarati traders and businessmen. They have consistently raised their voice against the sudden implementation of note ban and the GST.

However, after the GST Council gave some relaxations to traders earlier this month, PM Modi declared in Gujarat that amended rules brought early Diwali. Ahead of the GST Council meet, PM Modi had held a longish meeting with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and BJP chief Amit Shah in Delhi.

Amit Shah had to cut short his ongoing Gujarat visit to come to attend the meet. PM Modi reportedly asked the Finance Minister to make sure that the GST Council agreed to give certain relaxations, which were considered crucial in view of Gujarat elections.

The BJP has not recovered from the jolt it received in Gujarat with Narendra Modi shifting from Gandhinagar to New Delhi as prime minister in 2014. Modi's absence created a vacuum in Gujarat BJP's leadership which still persists.

In the subsequent elections to local bodies, the Congress has not only closed the gap, but in some cases has taken over the BJP since 2014. The Congress had already managed to improve its vote share in the last Assembly election over the previous state polls.

In the 2009 Gujarat Assembly polls, the gap between the BJP and the Congress was 9.49 per cent, which stood at 9 per cent in 2012 while Narendra Modi was still ruling the state. The electrifying electioneering by Narendra Modi gave the BJP a huge jump from 46.5 per cent votes in 2009 to 59.1 per cent in 2014. The Congress' share reduced from 43.2 per cent to 32.9 per cent over the same period.

But, the Congress has effected a complete reversal of fortunes in the panchayat and municipality elections. In 2010, the Congress controlled one district panchayat with 44 per cent vote share, while the BJP ruled 30 district panchayats with 50.26 per cent votes.

In 2015 - first panchayat polls after Modi became the prime minister - the Congress came back with a bang, winning 24 district panchayats with 47.85 per cent of the polled votes. The BJP could manage to win only six out of 31 district panchayats with 43.97 per cent votes.

Out of 230, the number of taluka panchayats won by Congress jumped from 26 with 42.42 per cent votes in 2010 to 134 with 46 per cent votes in 2015. The BJP's tally reduced from 150 with 48.51 per cent to only 67 with 42.32 votes in 2015. The impact of Modi's absence on the BJP in Gujarat was telling.

Sensing this undercurrent, Congress leader and political advisor to party president Sonia Gandhi, Ahmad Patel had earlier this year said, "If we don't win this election, we may not win another election again in Gujarat." If his recent focus on Gujarat is any indication, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, too, seems to believe that this is the best chance for the Congress to get back to power in the state.  

In 2014, Modi had won from both Vadodara and Varanasi parliamentary constituencies. He chose to represent Varanasi in the Lok Sabha. The Vadodara seat came to the BJP's fold but this meant that there was no electoral connect between PM Modi and his home state Gujarat.

Many players suddenly became dominant and occupied centre-stage in Gujarat politics. Patidar leader Hardik Patel campaigned extensively across the state drawing huge crowds. Hardik Patel demands a quota for Patels under the OBC category. The Patels are not classified as OBC in Gujarat.

Patels constitute 12 per cent of Gujarat's population. They have been a dominant voice in Gujarat's politics and business. But rising unemployment among the youth has given credence to the voice of Hardik Patel, who is back in Gujarat after having been externed for a year following a case of sedition.

Hardik Patel has galvanised the community members to such an extent that powerful Patel community leaders, including state ministers Nitin Patel and Saurabh Patel, were not allowed to hold public rallies earlier this year in Gujarat. They had to cancel their rallies in Patel-dominated areas.

On the other hand, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor has launched a parallel campaign against attempts to accommodate Patels for quota benefits. Alpesh Thakor is the president of OBC SC ST Ekta Manch and Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena.

In his rallies, Alpesh Thakor claims that OBCs, SCs and STs constitute 78 per cent population of Gujarat. He alleges that despite forming an overwhelming majority in Gujarat, these three communities have been ignored by the BJP government in the last 22 years. Alpesh Thakor is now joining the Congress.

The Census data of casts is available only for 1931, according to which the OBC community forms over 40 per cent of Gujarat's population. Some other reports say that their share in Gujarat's population could be as high as 54 per cent. The BJP cannot afford to antagonise the community and dream of winning the election.

Dalits are also angry, particularly after the Una incident. Youths of a family were thrashed by some self-styled cow vigilantes as they suspected that the Dalits had killed the cow, which they were skinning as part of their profession.

The incident led to widespread condemnation of the BJP government led by Anandiben Patel. Lawyer-turned-Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani has been canvassing to unite his community to stand against the BJP in the upcoming Gujarat election.

Anandiben Patel was removed as the chief minister of Gujarat after the Una incident. However, mishandling of the Hardik Patel episode was also one of the reasons for her sacking, which was presented by the BJP as a case of retiring from active politics on account of age.

Mevani has raised several incidents of brutality against Dalits in Gujarat since the Una incident, which proved to be a flashpoint. On one occasion last year, Dalit protestors surrounded the homes of Dalit MP Kirit Solanki and Asarva MLA Rajnikant Patel in Ahmedabad last year.

With GST relaxations and a strong base among the OBCs, PM Modi and Amit Shah hope to keep them electorally loyal to the BJP. But Patels, Dalits and Muslims may still create problems for the BJP in Gujarat election. Together, they constitute about 32 per cent of Gujarat's population.