Battle-lines are drawn for the first phase in Gujarat

By Deepak Parvatiyar*

Article courtesy Marathi Daily Pudhari where it was published in two parts in Marathi on 29th and 30th November, 2017.

Ahmedabad:  With respective political parties finalizing their lists of candidates, battle-lines are drawn for the first phase of elections in Gujarat. As many as 977 candidates are in fray for the 89 seats in 19 districts that goes for polling in the first phase on 9th December, 2017. Gujarat House has total 182 seats.

It is a direct fight between the traditional rivals, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress Party in all 89 seats in the first phase even though there are fringe players such as Shankersinh Vaghela’s Jan Vikalp Morcha, the Aam Aadmi Party as well as the Nationalist Congress Party might influence certain pockets. In 2012, the NCP had won two seats in Gujarat.

The caste-war in Gujarat

But more than these parties, the most significant players though are the three rising stars of state politics – Alpesh Thakore, Jignesh Mewani and Hardik Patel. They together have brought caste politics to centre-stage in a state, wherein the BJP all these years had made attempts to neutralize the caste factor by carefully packaging it with the Hindutva concept.

As it is, Alpesh,35, of OBC SC, ST Ekta Manch and son of a Congress leader, has rapidly climbed the political ladder by playing the OBC card. Jignesh,33, an unknown face till last year, rose to prominence by leading a campaign for Dalit righs after an assault by cow vigilantes on four members of the community who were skinning a cow at Una. Hardik, the 24-year-old face of the Patel or Patidar quota agitation, has risen by playing his community card.

Obviously the Congress hopes to get a piggyback ride on the back of the triumvirate to upset the BJP’s applecart this time. Their rise has made the Congress lap up the opportunity to reinvent its KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formula  which had helped it retain power in the state in the 1980s. But the Hardik factor this time has also added a ‘P’ (Patel) to this formula.

However, the Congress did fail in its efforts to make Jignesh join its fold but continues to support him as an Independent candidate from Vadgam, a reserved seat for Scheduled Caste. But, with regards to Alpesh, the party managed to get him to its fold even at the cost of inviting anger of its own party workers. It decision to field Thakore on a Congress ticket from Radhanpur, which has 67 per cent OBC population, resulted in threats by about 2,000 angry party workers there to in the constitutency as they demanded Raghu Desai as the Congress candidate. Desai was the unanimous choice in a survey conducted by party vice-president Rahul Gandhi.

Significantly, the BJP has dropped its sitting MLA Nagarji Thakor, in favour of Lavingji Thakor against Alpesh in Radhanpur. Originally a Congress leader, Lavingji was known to be a Vaghela supporter who had once even vacated the Radhanpur seat for him. The election in Radhanpur though is in the second phase on December 14.

The Patel Factor

As far as Hardik is concerned, the Congress had prolonged negotiations with him over the issue of extending reservation to the Patels.  Yet, its pre-poll understanding with Hardik’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) is a tricky one for a number of reasons:-

  • Already Hardik’s five confidants, Chirag Patel, Ketan Patel, Reshma Patel, Amrish Patel and Shweta Patel, have joined the BJP.
  • The heads of Khodaldham and Umiyadham — the two key religious organizations of the Patel community, claim they were not taken into confidence over the Hardik-Congress understanding on the quota issue for the Patels. In fact Vikram Patel, Chairman of Unjha Umiyadham Trust said Hardik was “lying” that he had informed them about the “formula”. Taking a cue, the BJP has now hit back saying that the reservation formula agreed upon by Hardik and the Congress was legally untenable and that both were cheating the people of Gujarat.
  • Besides,  in 2012 too, the BJP had faced the prospects of losing its Patel base after former chief minister Keshubhai Patel quit the party to set up his own political outfit, Gujarat Parivartan Party because of his differences with the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. But even a leader of Keshubhai’s stature could not disturb the BJP’s Patel support base. His party, despite fielding 167 candidates then, had then won only 2 seats – including that of Keshubhai’s. The GPP’s vote share was just 3.63% and its 159 candidates forfeited their deposits. Finally, the GPP merged with the BJP. Incidentally, the GPP factor then had only helped the BJP by eating up the Congress votes. This time, can the Congress gain by supporting Hardik is to be seen.

Yet,  Hardik’s impact on the state’s political horizon is quite pronounced. Preliminary reports suggest that the BJP and the Congress have respectively given tickets to 23 and 21 Kadva Patels – a sub-caste of Patels to which Hardik belongs. In 2012, both parties had respectively fielded 20 and 18 Kadva Patels in the fray. However, while the BJP has stuck to total 52 tickets to Patel community, including both the Kadva and Leuva Patels, as was the case in 2012, the Congress has given tickets to 47 candidates from the community as against 45 in 2012! Moreover, the Hardik-impact ensured that there was no place for Anandiben Patel and her daughter Anar in the BJP list. While Anandiben had already expressed her unwillingness to contest, sources said she was keen on making Anar contest on the BJP ticket from Ghatlodiya – a constituency that she represented.

Besides, the Congress even accommodated three Hardik’s associates in its second list of candidates, in the process, altering names from the first list  after the first list triggered violent clashes between Congress and Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) workers on November 20.

The new caste-oriented permutation and combination with the influential Patel community at its centre has made even Modi take note of. In his election rally in Jasdan in Rajkot district on Monday, 27h November Modi too jumped into the caste war, accusing the Congress of conspiring to throw four Patel Chief Ministers out of power in the past. However, his critics accused him of misrepresenting facts. It may be mentioned that so far Gujarat has seen only four Patel CMs — Babubhai Jashbhai Patel, Chimanbhai Patel,  Keshubhai Patel and the first woman CM Anandiben Patel.

Infighting more pronounced in the Congress

The Congress party’s preference to “imported” candidates from the PAAS, the OBC SC, ST Ekta Manch, NCP as well as the Sharad Yadav faction of the Janata Dal (United) over its own cadre has visibly made the Congress workers restive. The party’s decision to nominate Alpesh’s man for Bayad in Sabarkantha district, Hardik’s candidate for Nikol seat in Ahmedabad, and to favour a Sharad Yadav faction of JD(U) candidate for Waghodiya constituency saw violent protests by Congress workers outside the state Congress headquarters in Ahmedabad and in other parts of the state on Sunday. In Mehsana, Rekhaben Chaudhary, chairperson of Mehsana’s district panchayat education committee, went ahead to quit the Congress over the issue of party ticket to Jivabhai Patel, from Kadi assembly constituency. Jivabhai had allegedly also sought a ticket from the ruling BJP. Earlier, within hours of the Congress releasing its first list of candidates, the party grappled with rebellion within its rank in Surat where its corporators and ticket aspirants Dhansukh Rajput and Jyoti Sojitra, who was also head of the party’s Surat woman cell, had resigned along with state Congress secretary Feroz Malek.

As is obvious now, the political blitzkrieg is in full swing. While those denied tickets such as BJP’s former municipal councilor in Surat, Bhimji Patel and other party rebels Ajay Chaudhary and Kumwarji Halpati have filed nomination as Independents from Karanj, Choryasi amd Mandvi/Mangrol in Surat respectively, rebels too are creating unease among the Congress, BJP camps each passing day.

What has further queered the pitch is a letter by the Archbishop of Gandhinagar last week, asking Christians to pray, to save the country from “nationalist” forces. The Election Commission has served a notice to the Archbishop. Yet, one thing is clear that the anti-BJP forces seem more desperate now to see the back of the saffron brigade. However, to ensure this, they also need to overcome the vicious infighting within their fold as quickly as possible.

The curious case of Shankersinh Vaghela

Against this backdrop it would be interesting to see the impact of Vaghela factor this elections. He is already trying to position himself as a ‘king maker’ this elections. This does suggest that he expects a fractured verdict but will that be the case? As it is, the opposition is largely depending on the incumbency factor against the Bharatiya Janata Party, particularly in rural Gujarat where in 2015 civic elections the Congress won 21 of the 31 district panchayats!

It may be mentioned that the BJP has been in power in the state for the last 22 years since 1995 barring a brief period when Vaghela had split the BJP and set up his own Rashtriya Janata Party that ruled the state with the Congress support between October 1996 and March 1998.

A quintessential rebel, Vaghela, who became a full-fledged Congress man and held various positions in the party, including that of a Union Minister in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government as well as the Leader of the Opposition in the Gujarat Assembly, walked out of the Congress with seven other party MLAs in July this year,  and set up a new outfit, the Jan Vikalp Morcha, which is now contesting on the election symbol of All India Hindustan Congress Party the All India Hindustan Congress Party – a political party which was registered in Jaipur about a year ago and was allotted the symbol of ‘a farmer driving a tractor’. Thus far it has cleared names of 139 candidates.

What makes the Vaghela factor count this time is his seven MLAs’ open support to the BJP candidates during the Rajya Sabha elections in the state in July this year. In the process they defied the Congress whip. Soon thereafter, Vaghela’s son Mahendrasinh had indicated about all, except Shankersinh, joining the BJP. His hobnobbing with the BJP in recent times had proved futile though and Vaghela, on his part, has rubbished Congress’ charge that he or his son was aligned to the BJP. He has categorically stated that neither he nor his son would contest this time. The BJP though, has already given tickets to several Congress rebel MLAs including Tejashreeben Patel (Viramgam constituency), and Amit Chaudhary(Manasa Constituency).

Fate of many bigwigs to be decided in the first phase

In the first phase, fate of many bigwigs would be sealed. They include Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, Gujarat BJP president Jitu Vaghani, former Gujarat Congress president Arjun Modhvadia, Congress party’s national spokesman Shaktisinh Gohil, and senior ministers Babubhai Bokhiria, and Chimanbhai Saparia. As the campaigning reaches a crescendo, PM Modi is leading the BJP pack. After trumpeting his development model, he has now again donned the chaiwalla hat. As he kicked off the Guajarat poll campaign on Monday, he started with a sarcastic jibe on the Congress: “I will sell tea, but not the nation.” But will Gujarat buy his claims? The Opinion polls do favour him as of now.

*Deepak Parvatiyar is a senior journalist

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