By Sahil Makkar
Rajkot/Ahmedabad: In the last election, Kishor Patel voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but this time he won’t. The 45-year-old is shifting allegiance instead to Keshubhai Patel, who broke away from the BJP and founded the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) three months ago.
The emergence of the GPP and Keshubhai’s appeal for fellow Leuva Patels, who make up a formidable voting bloc in Gujarat, has added a third dimension to what has traditionally been a straight contest between the Congress and the BJP, which under chief minister Narendra Modi has won two consecutive terms in power in the state.
“Modi is good leader, but many of us are voting for Keshubhai. He is our true Leuva leader,” said Kishor Patel. “We still have not forgotten good times in his regime. It was he who started the scheme of bringing Narmada river water to the parched land of Saurashtra.”
Herein lies the challenge to Modi, who is popularly thought to be leading the BJP to a third consecutive electoral win in the state of 60 million people in the 13, 17 December election.
And the main arena of dissent is Saurashtra, where Keshubhai seems to be getting electoral traction on the strength of his ethnic appeal to the Leuva Patels just as dissidents within the BJP are trying to chip away at the party’s support base.
While the Congress left its charge too late, it is the dissidence from within the BJP that is proving to be more disconcerting to the fiesty chief minister. It is particularly worrying for Modi because he has a lot more riding on this assembly election than just ensuring a third term in power for the BJP.
“The question is not whether the BJP will win this election. This election is more about number of seats Modi can win for the party. Rather than the BJP, it is a litmus test for Modi as numbers will decide his prospects of becoming prime minister in the future,” said R.K. Misra, a veteran journalist based in Ahmedabad.
Clearly, if Modi fails to improve on the 2007 tally of winning 117 out of the 182 assembly seats he risks missing out on a chance to take pole position in the BJP and launch the next phase of his career in national politics ahead of the next general election, due in 2014.
The Patel challenge
In Gujarat, the Patels, who account for nearly 14-15% of the state population, are perceived to be electorally influential, especially in the regions of Saurashtra and Kutch, where elections for 54 out of 87 assembly seats will be held on Thursday; parts of Ahmedabad and Surat too are going to polls on the same day.
Not without reason that four cabinet ministers out of nine in the Modi government are Patels.
In Saurashtra, the political hotbed of the state, the Patels dominate all seven districts: Rajkot, Junagadh, Bhavnagar, Porbandar, Jamnagar, Amreli and Surendranagar. The Patels also make up significant numbers in Surat and Vadodora.
Among the Patels, who derive their name from Patedars (the record-keeper named by princely rulers to keep track of crops), there are two major castes that have their roots in mythology. The Kadva Patels are thought to be descendents of Lord Ram’s son Kush, and are fewer in number than the Leuva Patels, who are supposed to be descendents of the warrior-god’s other son Lav.
Not all subscribe to this distinction. In the last two decades, both communities, which usually are at odds with each other and follow distinct cultures, have voted for the BJP. The Kadvas are believed to be staunch supporters of the BJP while a part of the Leuva vote depends on the candidate.
Against this backdrop, the GPP is now threatening to alter the dynamics of the state election in which a total of 52 Leuva leaders from the three principal parties are fighting for election from Saurashtra.
“Keshubhai is very powerful in Saurashtra. Not only is he the tallest Leuva leader, he has managed to create a perception that Saurashtra was neglected under Modi rule. Keshubhai has successfully managed the issue of water scarcity in his favour,” said Ghyansham Shah, a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, now settled in Ahmedabad, some 200km from Saurashtra.
BJP member of Parliament Navjot Singh Sidhu’s description of Keshubhai a traitor has hurt the sentiments of the Patel community, said Shah.
“Even Modi has not said a word against Keshubapa. This is certainly going to go against the BJP. My own assessment is that the GPP will make a difference on at least 10-12 seats,” he said.
The problems for Modi in Saurashtra have been compounded by drought that triggered a spate of farmer suicides. Forty farmers have killed themselves in the past three months, according to local media reports.
“Some farmers may have taken loans to till their lands. But they suffered losses due to scanty rains. People are upset as Narmada river water is yet to reach villages. There was no new irrigation scheme by Modi,” said Gela Patel, 70, who grows onions, garlic and groundnut.
In the past, the Gujarat government has refused to acknowledge farmer suicides in the state.
The Dalit-Muslim equation
At the same time, the Dalits and Muslims accuse Modi of discrimination.
“Modi has developed only those areas where his traditional voters are. In our villages, every facility is available for BJP voters, but we have been left out. No Dalit or Muslim would vote for him and (will) continue to stick with Congress,” said Shaliesh Sagathiya, a resident of Kothiyara village in Rajkot.
To be sure, there is no lack of passion among supporters of Modi.
“The BJP has its captain, Modi, whereas Congress does not have a face in Gujarat,” said J.P. Patel, an ardent BJP supporter and teacher at a local polytechnic. “Who is their (Congress’s) chief ministerial candidate? At the same time people have doubts whether Keshubapa can form government in the state. If he cannot field candidates on all the 182 seats, how can he make the government?”
“Patels usually don’t waste their votes,” added J.P. Patel. “They will give it to the winning candidate, who can work for their benefits. Only those who are unhappy with the BJP and Congress would go to the GPP. Keshubapa will only get 2-3% voters in sympathy.”
In 2002, BJP won 39 of 58 seats in Saurashtra and Kutch (before delimitation) and improved the tally to 43 in 2007. In 1998, when Keshubhai was at the helm, the BJP had won 50 seats.
The significance of Saurashtra, traditionally known as Kathiawar, can be gauged from a simple fact that it has the maximum number of assembly seats and most of the political heavyweights are fighting from this region.
“Today, Modi is a brand in the state. People are voting in the name of development that took place in last 10 years. We will even get more seats this time because Gujarati public wants to see one of their own becoming prime minister of the country,” a senior BJP functionary believed to be close to Modi said on condition of anonymity.
If the BJP is known as the party of Patels in Gujarat, the Congress is the party of the Kshatriyas.
Shankersinh Vaghela, a BJP rebel and one of the leaders in the state with a mass following, is a Kshatriya. So are Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee president Arjun Modhwadia and leader of the opposition Shaktisinh Gohil. Kshatriyas are more dominant in the areas of Kutch, Jamnagar, Bhavnagar and Surendranagar.
In the last two decades, especially after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 and the Gujarat riots of 2002, the Congress has been reduced to a pale shadow of what it was. The Patels abandoned the Congress after Madhavsinh Solanki formed the so-called KHAM alliance of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims in 1985. Solanki led the party to an emphatic win, claiming 149 out of 182 assembly seats.
The Naresh Patel factor
“Unless the Congress wins back Patel voters, it is difficult for them to return to power. Perhaps the Naresh Patel factor might work for them this time. The other strategy the Congress might be following is to ensure low voter turnout at the polling booths. The defection of Patel voters to GPP would in turn help Congress,” Shah said.
In the last few years, Rajkot-based industrialist Naresh Patel has emerged as a prominent Leuva Patel face in Saurashtra. He has united the Patel community under the Khodaldham Trust, which is building a temple of the deity Khodiyar at Kagvad in Rajkot district. He recently held a congregation of nearly two million Leuva Patels in the state to raise funds for the temple.
Naresh Patel is apolitical but has called for a vote for change in Gujarat.
Although Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi refused to admit Naresh Patel was a factor in the election, some party politicians say the industrialist would certainly help the return of Patel voters back to the party’s fold.
In 2007, the BJP got 49.12% of the vote in all of Gujarat, while the Congress got 38%; the proportion was similar in 2002. In 2007, 46 seats in Gujarat were decided by a margin of less than 5,000 votes, of which 16 were in the Saurashtra and Kutch region.
The Congress is conducting a low-key advertisement campaign, with central leaders missing from the billboards stuck in public places. Modi’s posters and life-sized hoardings are all over Gujarat.
The Congress has to deal with its share of infighting.
Former Congress leader Narhari Amin, who joined the BJP a few days ago after being denied a Congress ticket, said all senior leaders in the Congress wanted to be chief minister, mentioning Modhwadia, Gohil and Vaghela.
“I felt insulted after party did not consult me on ticket distribution, so I quit,” he said.
For Modi, like the last time, the key is to ensure an extraordinary voter turnout. In an election with a low voter turnout, the dissidents as well as the Muslim vote could be a deciding factor.
The BJP managed to ensure a high turnout in the last two assembly elections: in 2002, it was 61.54% and in 2007 it was 59.77%.
Modi is not taking any chances this time either. He has been addressing on average seven rallies a day in a tireless campaign as part of a strategy to rouse his cadres and make sure the voters turn out in big numbers. It is not just the outcome of this election he has to worry about. His political future is at stake.