Ahmedabad: A new front comprising dissident Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders is taking shape in Gujarat in opposition to party strongman and chief minister Narendra Modi ahead of elections in the state scheduled for December. Analysts, however, doubt whether the grouping will be able to make much headway at the polls.
Former chief minister and Modi opponent Keshubhai Patel will attend a series of public gatherings this month and is expected to announce his political strategy on 8 July, kicking off the front’s campaign.
The Modi government’s main political opposition in Gujarat is the Congress party, which lost the last 2007 elections to the BJP.
Drawing battle lines: Former Gujarat CM Keshubhai Patel. Hindustan Times
Modi has been chief minister of Gujarat for 11 years and has been tipped as one of the BJP’s strongest candidates for the post of the prime minister but has also been accused of being high-handed and ruthless with those who don’t agree with his policies.
Apart from Patel, the new front includes former home minister Gordhan Zadaphia, former union textiles minister Kashiram Rana and former chief minister Suresh Mehta. It will hold six meetings 10-24 July at various places in the state under the banner Have to bas... parivartan (All we want now is change), said Zadaphia.
Having refused a ministerial berth offered by Modi in 2004, Zadaphia floated the Maha Gujarat Janta Party (MJP) in 2008. MJP aims to contest all 182 assembly seats in the 2012 state elections.
Zadaphia said his party is considering the projection of Patel as chief ministerial candidate.
With Shankarsinh Vaghela likely to be the Congress candidate for chief minister, this would mean all three aspirants for the post would have Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. (RSS) background.
The Hindu nationalist body provides the ideological base for the BJP.
The various groups associated with the RSS are collectively known as the Sangh parivar.
While admitting there was little time to form a new party, Zadaphia didn’t rule out the option of Patel and other dissident leaders joining the MJP.
“Our aim is to bring about a change in the existing leadership and we want Keshubhai to lead us. There are people from the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits like the RSS and the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) who are keen to join us,” Zadaphia said. “They are all awaiting Keshubhai Patel’s decision, which is expected within a month’s time.”
MJP adheres to the Sangh ideology and will project the plight of farmers in the state, besides education, unemployment and what he described as the myth of investment figures.
Patel could not be reached as he was travelling. A person close to him said he will be attending the various meetings detailed by Zadaphia.
The rift between Patel and Modi goes back to 2001, when the latter replaced him as chief minister.
Kanubhai Kalsariya, a BJP member who carried out an agitation against a cement project in Gujarat that was backed by the Modi government, said he was awaiting Patel’s strategy announcement. Kalsariya said he and some of his supporters would contest as independents in the upcoming elections in about 10 seats.
The Patel factorIn the past week both Rana and Patel have announced they were exiting the BJP and hadn’t renewed their memberships.
Both said they were looking to join a new party.
An MJP release on Wednesday said Patel will address meetings at Bhavnagar, Surat, Jamnagar, Rajkot, Vadodara and Junagadh. But for Vadodara, all the other areas are key Patel areas. The group is looking to win the support of the community, regarded as strong backers of the BJP.
Keshubhai Patel is credited with building the BJP’s Patel vote bank in Gujarat. Patels constitute between 12-14% of the state’s population and dominates the education, small and medium enterprises, cooperative and diamond sectors. They could be a decisive factor in 35-40 assembly segments in Saurashtra, Surat, Ahmedabad and north Gujarat.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, the Lehvua Patel community, to which Keshubhai Patel belongs, had rejected the BJP candidate, resulting in the party’s loss of the crucial parliamentary seat of Rajkot that it won between 1989 and 2009.
The new front formed by BJP dissidents could help the incumbent as the anti-Modi votes would get split, said Ghanshyam Shah, former professor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
It would be wrong to regard the Patel vote as a bloc vote, said Shiv Vishwanathan, an Ahmedabad-based sociologist.
“Patels have never voted as a group,” Shah said. “There could be a few cases where they would have done so. Also, there are Patels who vote for Congress. So there can’t be Patels en-bloc following Keshubhai. The economic policies of the state are not against the Patels. Voters won’t leave BJP because Keshubhai is not there. He did not contest even in the last elections.”
While maintaining that it was too early to assess the impact of the new party, Shah said the voter turnout in favour of the BJP has been on the decline as per recent surveys.
According to one of those, “while 54% people appreciated so-called development in Gujarat and Modi, over 60% did not give a positive vote in areas like education, health and employment,” Shah said.
“Keshubhai is 84 and Zadaphia’s name has appeared in the 2002 riots in the past. They can’t claim to be secular. Also, the issues they are trying to raise are similar to that of the Congress. Although it is a crucial move, the new front comprising BJP dissidents will have little impact,” Vishwanathan said.
He added, however, that there was wider opposition to the Modi government this time around with agitations being held in several parts of the state.
“It seems that as Modi’s move to Delhi looks positive, his popularity in the state is on a decline,” he added, referring to the possible move to make him the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 general elections.
A BJP leader said Keshubhai and his new party may have an impact on a few seats and there were some concerns on that score.