Nervous in Gujarat, BJP is now ‘Congress-yukt Bhajapa’

BJP president Amit Shah and Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani being garlanded by party leaders during the launch of 'My Family, BJP Family' campaign, in Ahmedabad. PTI

The BJP bagged all the 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat in 2014. A repeat feat is almost impossible in 2019. So, it is beg, borrow, steal or poach!

As general elections near, the BJP credo of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, enunciated by its president Amit shah at the beginning of Narendra Modi’s term as prime minister seems to have morphed into a ‘Congress-yukt BJP’. This may be noticeable in other states but is more so in Gujarat, Modi and Shah’s home state.

The BJP, which prides itself on being a cadre-based party, sees no problems in cannibalising from Congress. After it worked overtime over a long time to win over Kunvarji Bavaliya, a senior leader of Congress, in early February, the party inducted Asha Patel, Congress legislator from Unjha constituency in North Gujarat. Asha Patel met Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and thereafter resigned from the primary membership of Congress as well as from the Assembly to join the BJP.

Asha Patel’s Unjha constituency is part of the Mehsana Lok Sabha constituency. Of the seven assembly seats in this LS constituency, BJP holds four and Congress held three. Interestingly, Modi’s hometown Vadnagar is part of Unjha constituency. Both Vadnagar and BJP president Amit Shah’s hometown, Mansa, had elected Congress legislators in 2017. Asha Patel, who was at one time considered close to Patidar leader Hardik Patel was elected in the backdrop of the Patidar quota agitation in 2017m defeating Narayan Lalu Patel of the BJP.

Narayan, a diehard BJP veteran, is learnt to be extremely upset at her induction as are many other saffron cadres who are up in arms. Speculation is rife that her induction has come at the end of horse-trading. The negotiations for her shift were reportedly carried out in Singapore with a close confidante of the leader who is likely to be inducted as chairman of the cash-rich Unjha Agricultural Produce Marketing Cooperative (APMC). Her induction has been done with the single aim of defeating Congress in Mehsana Lok Sabha seat where it had acquired clout in the aftermath of the pro-reservation Patidar agitation for quota in jobs and admissions. She may even be put up as the BJP candidate here. A defeat for the BJP in a constituency which comprises the prime minister’s hometown is not something Modi could digest.

Similar considerations were on the mind of the BJP top brass when it worked overtime to get Kunvarji Bavaliya to switch over to the BJP and made him a full-fledged cabinet minister within hours. He quit the Jasdan assembly seat that he had won in 2017 on a Congress ticket and re-contested for it as a BJP minister.

It was delicious irony to see the BJP put all its might behind a long-standing Congressman. A five-time Congress MLA, he was also elected Congress MP in 2009, though he lost the LS polls in 2014 and was elected to the assembly in 2017.

So desperate was the BJP that it even risked the Election Commission’s wrath and made policy announcements of electricity bill exemptions to defaulting rural consumers and of setting up an All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Rajkot. Bavaliya, who won the by-election, was invited by Prime Minister Modi to visit him in Delhi.

The reason is learnt to be two-fold. One, the BJP had for long been looking for a replacement Koli leader for fisheries minister Purshottam Solanki, who has now become a millstone around their neck. A warrant has been issued against Solanki by the anti-corruption court after he failed to appear before it in connection with a Rs 400-crore fisheries scam that took place when he was a minister under Chief Minister Modi in Gujarat. Bavaliya, also a Koli leader, who took over as the president of the community’s national body after Ramnath Kovind became President, is intended to be his replacement.

Saffron darlings

After Modi took over as chief minister in Gujarat in 2001, Congress has lost 28 leaders to the BJP — 16 MLAs since the 2012 assembly elections. Vithal Radadiya, against whom a case was filed after he raised a gun at a toll booth, became a saffron darling after he joined the BJP in 2014. Fourteen MLAs of the Congress, led by former chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela, had resigned ahead of the August 8, 2017 Rajya Sabha polls in which Congress leader Ahmed Patel was a contestant and managed to scrape through.

Of the 14, three legislators — Balwantsinh Rajput, Tejshreeben Patel and Prahlad Patel — had joined the BJP before the Rajya Sabha elections, while eight others joined the BJP later. Vaghela did not join the BJP but his son Mahendrasinh did, only to quit a disenchanted man. Vaghela senior is now the NCP national general secretary.

Five of the seven Congress defectors who contested the 2017 elections on a BJP ticket lost and one managed to scrape through by only 258 votes.

The main reason that the BJP is suffering from an attack of nerves in Gujarat is that it knows that it is impossible to repeat its 2014 Lok Sabha performance of sweeping all the 26 seats in the state. This is more so after Amit Shah’s boast of winning a record 150 of the total 182 assembly seats in 2017 fell flat and the Rahul Gandhi-led election campaign saw the Congress bag 77 seats and the BJP tally reduced to 99 seats (now 100 after Bavaliya’s by-election victory).

What is of critical importance is that the BJP margin of victory in 15 of these 99 seats was less than 3,000 votes. So, it is now strategising to weaken Congress rather than strengthen itself. A very thin line separates victory from defeat. And this is the reason the BJP is doing what it is now best at - poaching!

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Ahmedabad)

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Nervous in Gujarat, BJP is now ‘Congress-yukt Bhajapa’

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