Following Patel unrest, local polls litmus test for BJP

Following Patel unrest, local polls litmus test for BJP

Dateline

Plainspeaking British prime minister of the World War II era, Winston Churchill, once said: “Some men change their party for the sake of their principles; others their principles for the sake of their party.” This classic quandary seems to be playing out among the political players and voters in Gujarat these days.

The western state is in the midst of elections to 26 zilla panchayats (ZPs), 208 taluk panchayats, six of the eight municipal corporations (MCs) and 253 municipalities. Elections to ZPs and MCs will be on party basis. Polling will be held on November 22 and 29.

The political players and voters are now questioning themselves, whether to abandon the party they have been with for more than a generation or simply abandon the principles and stick with their party.

While the voters on the street appear to be worried about their basic needs, including requisite infrastructure, roads, water, ease of dealing with local administration, the recent political and social turbulence in the state also seems to be playing high on their minds.

The economically, socially and politically powerful Patel community has been in direct confrontation with the ruling BJP since the beginning of July. What they want is Other Backward Castes (OBC) status and quota in government jobs and educational institutions. Led by 22-year-old Hardik Patel, the community shook the political ground when, on August 25, almost a million Patels gathered in Ahmedabad in a show of strength.

The violence that followed this gathering  saw about 10 people losing their lives and led to a surge of opposition that threatened to sweep the establishment off its feet. The ruling party and Chief Minister Anandiben Patel were not ones to take any chances and they came down heavily against the Patel leadership.

The entire young brigade of Patidaar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), at the forefront of the Patel agitation against the Anandiben government, was made to face a barrage of legal cases, including sedition, and was later jailed. Several splinter factions that opposed the PAAS were created. It appeared that the entire movement by the Patels was systematically divided, so there remained no challenge to the BJP rule.

“Patels always believed and worked on the premise of ‘P for P’ or ‘Patel for Patel’. It meant a Patel would never go against the interest of other Patels. But what we see in the state is ‘P against P’. After Keshubhai Patel’s ouster in 2001, when Patels stood with the BJP and dumped Keshubhai, it was once again a standoff between the Patels,” a senior BJP Patel leader said.

What complicated the situation are the voices that came from the communities that already have been reaping benefits of reservation. “We will vote only for candidates that support our cause and are not planning any tinkering with the current reservation policy in the state,” said Alpesh Thakor, the 39-year-old convenor or Ekta Manch. Manch is a joint body created by leaders of OBCs, SC and STs that comprise almost 54 per cent of total electorate in the state.

There is not an iota of doubt amongst anyone in the state that there has been a tectonic shift between Patels and their favourite party for a long time — the BJP. This, along with voices coming out from communities favouring reservation, has left many in the saffron outfit with a Shakespearean dilemma, whether it can risk continuing its reliance and trust on the traditional vote bank of Patel or should it go ahead and try to breach the wall of opposition Congress with full might?

The Congress had once established its supremacy over Gujarat politics for decades by forging alliance amongst Kshatriya (OBCs), Harijan (SC), Adivasi (ST) and Muslims, widely known by the acronym KHAM. This formidable alliance was finally breached by the BJP in 1990s.

Downfall of Congress

The sharp communal divide that followed the gruesome Godhra train fire killing of 59 kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya, and the communal strife thereafter, which saw over 1,000 people — mainly Muslims — being killed, rallied the OBC, SC and STs against the Muslims. This shattered the KHAM combine resulting in complete decimation of the Congress in the state politics.

The BJP also appears to be on the defensive. This is evident from the fact that it has a large number of Muslims across the state as its candidates.

Though the Congress too has fielded over 800 Muslim candidates, the fact that the BJP is trying hard to woo sections of this community by having 500 Muslims as its candidates, perhaps hints towards its shaky confidence on the Patel community’s loyalty towards the party this time.

What is unnerving the BJP is that several protests have forced its leaders, be it the chief minister, her ministerial colleagues and other party functionaries to leave campaigning mid way and run for cover.

At several places, Patel women use metal utensils and rolling pins to force BJP leaders to scoot. Many Patel residential colonies across the state, too, have put hoardings of ‘No entry’ for BJP men. The key organisations spearheading the Patel agitation -— PAAS and Sardar Patel Group — too have come out in open and pledged their support to the Congress.

The Congress on its part is salivating at the prospect of getting the spoils of recent distrust between the BJP and its trusted vote bank. The grand old party, that has been waiting on the sidelines of power for over two decades, is hoping that the steady stream of defection from the rank and file of the BJP, including office-bearers of the BJP-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, towards the Congress would eventually turn into a tsunami of votes in its favour. But the final answer will come from Gujaratis unlocking the mystery of Churchill’s belief.

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