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The battle for Gujarat

Sunil Raghu, DH News Service, Ahmedabad, Dec 3 2017, 0:17 IST
Congress Vice President, Rahul Gandhi (C) addresses a rally in Dahegam, some 40km from Ahmedabad, on November 25, 2017. Voters in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state Gujarat will go to the polls against the opposition Congress Party in December in what will be a key test for India's right-wing premier. / AFP PHOTO / SAM PANTHAKY

Congress Vice President, Rahul Gandhi (C) addresses a rally in Dahegam, some 40km from Ahmedabad, on November 25, 2017. Voters in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state Gujarat will go to the polls against the opposition Congress Party in December in what will be a key test for India's right-wing premier. / AFP PHOTO / SAM PANTHAKY

Gujarat's political history in recent times can broadly be divided into three 'eras' - Before Modi, After Modi, and Modi in Delhi.

Before Modi

Since its establishment in 1980, BJP had worked to dislodge Congress from Gujarat. In 1989, it succeeded with help from formidable Patel leader Chimanbhai Patel, reducing Congress from a record 149 seats in the 182-seat Assembly in 1985 to its lowest ever of 33.

But so long as Chimanbhai was around, BJP could not rise. He prevailed, supported by Patels. Led by the trio of Narendra Modi, Shankarsinh Vaghela and Keshubhai Patel, BJP realised it would need Keshubhai as the face of the party. Their path became easy with the sudden demise of Chimanbhai in February 1994. Kesbhubhai became the first BJP CM of the state in March 1995. However, the struggle between him, Modi and Vaghela saw Patel upstaged, first by Vaghela in October 1995, then by Modi in October 2001, sending him into political oblivion.

After Modi

Beginning his innings in 2001, Modi always had his eyes set on the country's top job. He put to practice his skill of turning every adversity into an opportunity, starting by turning around the heat on him in the wake of the Gujarat riots to establish himself as "Hindu Hriday Samrat". He gradually consolidated his grip on the state and the psyche of its people.

"Modiji is deft in the art of managing, and is a micro-planner. He consolidated the party's hold on all the dairy, farm and bank cooperatives in the state. For example, today the dairy cooperative owning Amul is Congress-mukt. He even became chairman of Gujarat Cricket Association. He weaned leaders holding powerful positions in community organisations towards the party. Finally, he also worked to get districts and constituencies reorganised so that BJP will never face a defeat due to caste equations," a senior BJP leader said. "In all elections in the state since 2002, be it for local bodies, cooperative bodies or the Assembly elections and Lok Sabha polls in 2014, there was never a challenger to Modi."

Over the years, Modi also transformed into 'Vikas Purush' -- while careful not to let go of the 'Hindu Hriday Samrat' tag, either – most notably through the biennial 'Vibrant Gujarat' investment summits that became the hallmark of his 'Gujarat Model'.

Modi in Delhi

When Modi moved to Delhi in May 2014, the biggest question in Gujarat was, who could replace him. There were two contenders Anandiben Patel and Amit Shah. When Modi picked Anandiben, the internal struggle for power got a new start. There was a complete breakdown in communications between Anandiben's government and the party, now led by Amit Shah. Their mutual resentment laid the ground for the Patel, OBC, Dalit and many other agitations in the state. In the midst of all this rose 23-year-old Hardik Patel.

Hardik was a social media administrator for a Patel community leader, who highlighted the negatives of quotas. In time, however, their understanding of the issue changed, and Hardik, using social media skilfully, mobilised the community to hold their first rally in Viramgam in July 2015. By August, Hardik's agitation was a raging fire. A million Patels gathered at the GMDC Grounds in Ahmedabad, virtually locking down the city for over 12 hours, seeking quotas in jobs and education. The rest is history.

The Patel movement inspired another young man, Alpesh Thakore, who sought to bring together OBC, SC and ST communities in the state. Their aim was to caution BJP against tampering with the existing reservation system to give Patels a quota. As Hardik's popularity rose, so did Alpesh's.

Then, the public flogging of four Dalit youths in July 2016 by self-styled cow protectors at Una in Saurashtra added fuel to the fire. This led to the ouster of Modi's nominee, CM Anandiben Patel, helping Amit Shah put his man Vijay Rupani in her place.

The power struggle

Rupani, a first-time legislator, is seen as an 'interim' CM by most people within and outside BJP. "He has too much of a balancing to do, between Modiji and Amitbhai, Anandiben and Nitinbhai, party and people. No one envies his position," says a party spokesperson at the state BJP office. "Modiji and Amitbhai may say so, but no one believes Rupani will get another term. We will need a Patel, because Patels will surely hit out at us. Rather, everyone. Patels, Dalits, ASHA workers, fixed pay employees, traders hit by demonetisation and GST will hit out at us. Even farmers have not received the right price and insurance. The list seems endless. I hope we scrape through this time...But Patels will hit us hard."

Ask him why then Amit Shah and Modi talk of winning 150+ seats, he just shrugs his shoulders. Says another senior BJP leader, "Even I am surprised. I don't know where his confidence comes from. He must have managed something for sure, because if you look at the crowds at some of the rallies, including those of Modiji.

Even the business class, be it in Surat or Ahmedabad, reflects that mood. "Please protect your wealth well. Don't spend unnecessarily. Tough times are ahead," says an Ahmedabad-based businessman. "Most of my friends do not want to expand their business now. If you earn more, government is going to take it away. Might as well protect what you have and enjoy life."

This mood appears to have been captured by a charged-up Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, who has been lobbing a barrage of accusations against BJP and Modi for the last two months -- be it on unemployment, lack of affordable education and health infrastructure, demonetisation, GST or farm distress.

Even RSS functionaries are mostly staying away from the campaign. "Some Swayamsevaks may be helping a few candidates on individual basis, unlike in 2014 when we all regularly held meetings and nudged people to vote for BJP. Not this time. They (Modi-Shah) have become too arrogant and must learn a lesson. Some of their decisions have hit common people hard. How can we support that!" a senior RSS functionary said.

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