In Gujarat, nervous BJP poaching leaders from Congress

In Gujarat, nervous BJP poaching leaders from Congress

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is leaving no stone unturned to repeat its performance in the 2014 parliamentary election in Gujarat when it won all 26 Lok Sabha seats in the state. That year was the height of the popularity of its “son of the soil” Narendra Modi, who became prime minister with a thumping majority.

Five years down the line, that popularity has faded, enough to compel the state leadership to resort to poaching leaders from the opposition Congress. In the past three months, at least five Congress MLAs have resigned and joined the BJP. One of them was given a ministerial berth in the state cabinet. The poaching of opposition leaders indicates that the ruling party is not sure of winning all seats as it did in 2014.

The 2019 election looks different, and it is reflected in the BJP’s own campaigns that focus more on “nationalism” and “patriotism” rather than talking about good governance, development, corruption or black money, the issues on which Modi rose to power. 

The state BJP leaders, including Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, have been for the past few weeks talking only Pakistan, nationalism and patriotism while attacking the Congress in public rallies. Like their counterparts elsewhere in the country, the BJP leaders are going to people bragging about “surgical strike” and “airstrike” on Pakistan. The development plank seems to have gone into oblivion.

The BJP has so far announced the names of 19 candidates for the ensuing election, out of whom 14 are sitting MPs. That the candidates for the remaining seven seats are yet to be announced and the selection of candidates for the ones announced show that there is a dent in the party’s winning prospects. Five years ago, it was said that anyone put up by the BJP would have won due to the ‘Modi wave’. But this time, the party is working hard in the state to gauge the winnability of each candidate.

It is widely believed that fielding BJP president Amit Shah from the party bastion — the state capital, Gandhinagar — is a good, strategic move. It has sent a strong message to the party workers and enthuse them. The BJP is selling the story to its workers of how Shah started out as a booth-level worker and reached the top echelon of the party. 

The party workers are already upbeat about making sure that he wins with a record margin that even his predecessor and party veteran L K Advani couldn’t achieve. A show of strength designed to drive fear into the rival candidate was on display on March 30, the day Shah filed his nomination in Ahmedabad.

Shah’s arrival has also helped control the rising dissent over ticket distribution as well as anger caused by the party by favouring Congress turncoats.

Infighting on display

For the opposition Congress, nothing seems to be working in its favour ever since its encouraging performance in the December 2017 assembly election. It won 77 seats and restricted the BJP to 99. But since then, the party has been unable to keep its flock together. There has been infighting and the party doesn’t look like it is working as a team, compared to the more disciplined BJP.

But unlike in 2014, Gujarat Congress has three important faces — Patidar leader Hardik Patel, popular OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and independent Dalit MLA Jignesh Mevani. These young leaders’ popularity can dent the BJP’s prospects of repeating its 2014 performance.

If the December 2017 assembly election results are an indication for the Lok Sabha prospects, the BJP will have a tough fight in seven seats, including Anand in central Gujarat, Banaskantha in the north and in three seats in Saurashtra -- Amreli, Junagadh and Surendranagar. In the Patidar-dominated Mehsana seat, the epicentre of the Patidar agitation for reservation, too, the Congress is likely to give a tough fight to the BJP.

Issues like the agrarian crisis in Saurashtra and other parts of the state, especially the drought-hit areas, will adversely impact the BJP in seats which are dominated by the rural demographic. Besides, a deep anti-incumbency sentiment is also being seen among the voters, who are looking for a change.

The BJP’s performance will also depend on how smartly and unitedly the opposition Congress fights. Since the Rajya Sabha win of Ahmed Patel, which happened due to some smart moves in the nick of time by party leaders like Shaktisinh Gohil, helping Congress snatch a rare victory from the jaws of defeat, the morale of Congress has been high. Congress performance in the December 2017 assembly election was again hailed as a revival of the party in Gujarat, where it has been out of power for almost three decades now.

The Congress started its Lok Sabha campaign by holding the All India Congress Committee meeting in Ahmedabad after almost six decades. The symbolic move has helped the party in mobilising the workers at the grassroots. It was for the first time that the entire top leadership of the party descended on Gujarat. Earlier, the voters had seen such mobilisation of BJP leaders.

Despite these little successes that the “resurgent” Congress has achieved in the last two years, defeating the Modi-Shah duo’s juggernaut on their home turf is a daunting task. Modi’s popularity among the voters and Shah’s ability to mobilise dedicated workers, coupled with the Sangh Parivar’s push, are factors the Congress would find hard to respond to.

Given the present situation, the BJP would be looking at PM Modi’s marathon rallies focusing especially on seats where the party fears defeat. The mood among voters, as on today, suggests that the BJP could lose six to seven seats.