Both the BJP and the Congress are locked in a do or die battle for Gujarat Assembly polls that many see as a runup to 2019.
Never has a State election evinced such keen interest of late as the two phase Gujarat Assembly polls on December 9 and 14 this year. And never has the BJP been so nervous in recent years, especially after it stormed to power in Delhi in 2014 under the stewardship of Narendra Modi who held Gujarat under his tight grip for over 12 years since 2001.
The polls to Gujarat have attracted so much attention that some have started calling it the mother of all elections while others are calling it the semi-finals to the 2019 general elections. Whatever that may be, the elections in Gujarat will be extremely important and turning point for both the BJP and the Congress in the run-up to 2019.
There are three possibilities: A win for the BJP can make 2019 a much easier for the Gujarat strongman and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stroll to power in Delhi for another five years. Secondly, if the Congress manages to wrest control of Gujarat, the BJP, and Modi in particular, will have to face an uphill task in 2019. Voices of dissent against Modi-Amit Shah combine will grow louder and the BJP will find it tough to keep its house in order and united. A loss will also throw open questions on Modi’s flagship economic moves – demonetisation and the GST.
A third possibility will be that the BJP comes to power but with a reduced margin. This can work both ways for the BJP and the Congress. It will no doubt be seen as a setback for Modi by the rest of India. The Congress will exploit this to the hilt and tell people that there is indeed and alternative to Gabbar Singh alias Modi; and that is a loving and caring Congress under Rahul Gandhi.
However, according to the India Today-Axis My India Opinion poll, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah powered BJP is predicted to comfortably win the upcoming assembly elections in Gujarat and also knock out the Congress in its bastion of Himachal Pradesh.
The survey says that the BJP is likely to win between 115 and 125 seats in the 182-seat Gujarat Assembly. This is far off the mark of Amit Shah’s 150 plus plan. But still, a win is a win.
According to the opinion poll, BJP is likely to win an absolute majority in Gujarat while the Congress is likely to win 57 to 65 seats in Gujarat; others 0-3 seats.
Another opinion poll conducted by Times Now-VMR gives BJP 118-134 seats against 115 that the saffron party won in 2012. The Congress, which had 61 seats in the outgoing Assembly, is once again likely to end up as a poor second with 49-61 seats.
A whopping percentage of the respondents in both polls believed Narendra Modi becoming the Prime Minister was beneficial for Gujarat. But, at the same time, the opinion poll revealed that a number of key economic initiatives of the Modi government have not gone down well in Gujarat.
The rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) made 51% of the respondents unhappy, while 53 percent felt notes ban was not beneficial. But still, they are willing to give BJP another chance.
Opinion polls can go horribly wrong, especially when there are underlying currents of anger and anti-incumbency factors at play. And the coming elections would test this underlying currents, ripples of which would be valid across India.
Apart from the economic woes of job loss, unemployment, small traders losing business, the BJP is also facing the prospects of fighting against a sort of mahagatbandhan which the Congress is trying to cobble up. It is going to be a battle between BJP versus the rest of parties put together.
For the first time in many years, the BJP will not be getting the support of the strong Patidar or Patel community led by its maverick leader Hardik Patel. This is why the BJP is trying to revive a modified version of KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) coalition that once so successfully brought the Congress to power. The saffron brigade is hoping to consolidate OBCs, Dalits, and Adivasis — minus Muslims, of course. If these caste and tribal leaders side with the BJP, then there could be a major disruption in the political arithmetic of the Congress.
But what is worrying the BJP is the large turnout of young people at the rallies by the Patidar quota stir leader Hardik Patel and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor. They have started to convincingly present the other side of vikas (development). These leaders have been successful in bringing up the 2002 riots once again and the GST, demonetization and the anti-drinking law to the fore. Significantly, they have been able to draw the crowds like Modi but without any open political branding or godfather.
With almost 30 per cent of the electorate in the 18-35 age group in Gujarat, the growing popularity of Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakur is giving the BJP sleepless nights. This has forced BJP president Amit Shah to extend his stay in the state and compelled Modi to make frequent visits to open up a thundercloud of sops.
While the BJP is trying the split the Patidar community, the Congress is finding it difficult to woo the group. Hardik Patel is proving to be tough cookie for the Congress. He has put forth a set of tough demands before the Congress. These include an assurance on reservation for the Patel community in government jobs and educational institutions. He has also sought tickets for Patidar candidates in areas dominated by the Patel community.
The Congress is in knots with these demands. If they give in, then the OBCs will go en masse to the BJP. This is because any reservation to the Patidar community will reduce the job prospects of OBCs. If the Congress does not keep up its promise, Hardik Patel will just walk out.
With Hardik Patel pushing the BJP to the backfoot, the saffron party is reviving the spectre of the KHAM formula, by which the Congress bagged a staggering 149 of 182 seats in 1985, to ward off attempts to wean away the powerful Patidars. At that time, the Congress had booted out the Patels from KHAM.
KHAM was the brainchild of then chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki and was a combination of Kshatriyas (OBCs included), Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims. This successfully forged an unbeatable alliance enveloping nearly 70% of Gujarat’s population. It clearly excluded Patels and other upper castes, who deserted the Congress en masse. But Solanki won hands down setting an electoral record that still stands.
But KHAM also led to the Congress downfall, as it was unable to keep the combination intact. In 1990, the Chimanbhai Patel-led Janata Dal weaned away most Patel votes and formed a coalition government with the BJP. They fell apart mid-way after the Babri demolition and the Congress was happy to help keep Chimanbhai in power as a secular coalition. Since 1995, the BJP has won all five assembly elections, although they lost power once due to the Shankersinh Vaghela-led rebellion, which of the Congress cashed in on.
The BJP’s rise and ability to remain in power for a long spell was rooted in the deep inroads it made by working among the kshatriyas, OBCs, dalits and adivasis, under the Hindutva umbrella to break KHAM apart. While doing so, it kept the Patel and upper caste vote bank intact.
The BJP is also conscious of the fact that Hardik is not acceptable to all Patels, most of whom remain the most diehard fans of Modi. The BJP is trying to cash in on this. But the prospects of Congress snatching a chunk of the young Patel vote bank is enough for BJP to get a headache. What needs flagging here is that most Hardik supporters are in their 20s and 30s and hardly know the nuances of KHAM, leave alone seeing it as a potential threat.
Says Deputy CM Nitin Patel: “Congress has returned to KHAM formula under the current state president (Bharatsinh Solanki) who is the son of the pioneer of KHAM. They are trying to mislead patidars. Never ever have Rahul Gandhi or Solanki spoken about Patidars. They are just trying to divide and rule.”
And Solanki Jr responded saying “There is nothing like KHAM theory. Congress has always taken all communities together.”
But all said, it is to be seen how the Congress will keep the Patels united and how the BJP will drive a wedge in the community.
And there is the Shankersinh Vaghela factor in play. The grand old man, once the backbone of the Congress, can make or mar elections for the BJP and Congress.
As if all this was not enough bad news for the BJP, the saffron party had to suffer a major embarrassment when it was hit by a major bribery scandal. A party that prides itself with discipline and is dead against bribery was at its wits end to defend itself against allegations of bribery by a Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) member whom it inducted the very day Modi was in Gujarat inaugurating the Ro Ro ferry service. Just three hours after Narendra Patel, the PAAS convenor of Mehsana, joined the BJP, he went before the media with bundles of notes, allegedly worth Rs 1 crore, saying this was bribe money given to him by BJP to join the saffron brigade.
But in the war between the BJP and the Congress, it is the people of Gujarat who are standing to gain. It’s raining sops in Gujarat as poll clouds gather. The state government announced a fresh raft of sops and schemes. Deputy CM Nitin Patel announced several measures aimed at placating individual constituencies as well as amplifying BJP’s development plank. The announcements — 50% hike in incentive-based payments to 43,000 ASHA health workers, benefits for contract workers, relief for farmers using drip irrigation, and clearing the second phase of Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar Metro at a cost of Rs 6,700 crore — came just a day before the EC announced two-phase polls in the state.
Earlier, there was GST concessions to small traders which made many happy in Gujarat.
But one thing that has gone well for the Congress is Rahul Gandhi’s jibe at the GST calling it the Gabbar Singh tax. Forty two years after Amjad Khan essayed the role of spine chilling Gabbar Singh, a viciously grinning pan chewing burly villain in olive green pants and open-buttoned shirt, a smoking and unpredictable gun in hand, Gujarat seems to have given his ghost a political space and struck a surprising chord.
But in political theatre, the Congress is yet to find a Gabbar Singh or a Thakur for Gujarat.
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