Gujarat still seems to be stuck in the clear rural-urban divide of 2017. Will Pulwama and Balakot make a difference?
In 2014, the BJP won all 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat. But the situation seems to have changed. While the BJP still holds sway in urban areas, rural distress has the saffron party on edge
Ahmedabad: On the eve of elections, the mood in many parts of Gujarat is deeply conflicted. “They (central government) attacked us with everything they could. First came note bandi (demonetization), which threw our lives completely out of gear… then came GST (goods and services tax)," says Mahesh Prajapati, who runs a pharmacy in Ahmedabad’s middle-class Memnagar locality.
But Prajapati is quite certain that he will still vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “See, whatever are the other issues, after (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi, riots have stopped in Gujarat. The Muslims have been shown their place. See what he (Modi) did after Pulwama. Pakistan has been taught a lesson. In these circumstances, we have to vote intelligently. Other issues can wait," he explains.
Understandably, the Gandhinagar Lok Sabha constituency, under which Memnagar falls, is expected to be a walkover for BJP president Amit Shah. L.K. Advani represented the seat for five consecutive terms (1998-2014) before being eased into the party’s euphemistic retirement abode—the Margdarshak Mandal.
Most of the slogans in Amit Shah’s massive roadshows have had nothing to do with either the state or the constituency. “Kashmir Hamara Hain (Kashmir is ours)" is a popular one. Across urban Gujarat, large hoardings of Narendra Modi’s face with the accompanying slogan “Attacked terrorists inside enemy’s homes" dot the landscape. Several cities have witnessed special screenings of Uri: The Surgical Strike.
Cut to Saurashtra’s rustic belt around Mendarda town in the Porbandar Lok Sabha constituency, which is a mere 300 kilometres away from the state capital, and it’s a different world altogether. Mukesh Vasani, an angry farmer, has been waiting for a reporter to turn up at some point. “They are only diverting our attention with Pulwa-fulwa just because elections have come," he says. “We are farmers here and they have done nothing for us… except talking. At best, they are playing a joke with the ₹6,000 promise. The word farmer does not exist for them. We have suffered losses, be it with groundnut or cotton or even onions," Vasani adds.
In Jesar village under Amreli constituency, a further 200km away, Katharbhai wants to know: “Where is development? Where are the roads? Where is the water?" Mansukhbhai, another farmer, chips in: “Please understand clearly. We want a government for the poor, for us farmers, not for a handful of people. I don’t want to hear about all this desh-bhakti (nationalism). We want an MP (member of Parliament) whom we will get to see and who will sort out our issues."
Signs of a clear rift between urban and rural Gujarat first emerged in the 2017 assembly elections. More than half of BJP’s 99 seats in the 2017 state election came from cities. On the other hand, a majority of Congress’ 77 victories were registered in rural areas. Pulwama and the subsequent Balakot airstrikes have only solidified that festering divide. Farmers like Mukesh Vasani in the rural hinterlands of Saurashtra will essentially hold the key to BJP’s fortunes in a region which will hold much symbolic value come 23 May. In 2014, the BJP swept the state, winning all of Gujarat’s 26 Lok Sabha seats.
“In the state’s rural regions, people are not interested in the nationalist rhetoric," says senior Gujarat Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia. “We don’t see anything less than ten seats… all drawn from rural and Adivasi dominated regions," he adds.
A senior BJP leader, who has been pushed to the sidelines, says the Lok Sabha contest is likely to be tough since the Congress has done its homework and has “properly picked up its candidates". “You can say they are serious this time, unlike in the past," he says.
Having said that, BJP’s biggest advantage in the state is a well-oiled network that goes right up to the municipal ward level, which has been painstakingly built over the last 20 years, he says. “The page pramukh is not just a designation. Every such page pramukh is supposed to give a daily account of the work he has done. The system demands it. Sometimes, even if a candidate is bad, the network often takes care of it," the BJP leader adds.
Because of the presence of two vastly different world views within the geographic boundary of one state, BJP’s assessment of the “mood" can still lead it to believe that winning all 26 parliamentary seats yet again is a distinct possibility. Meanwhile, the Congress holds on to the hope that it will manage to make a significant dent.
In Gujarat, the 14 February Pulwama attack and India’s post-Pulwama retaliatory airstrikes uncannily revived the harrowing memories of the February 2002 Godhra train attack and the post-Godhra massacres. The saffron party rode to power in 2002 on the back of a Hindutva surge, particularly in urban Gujarat. But with cracks developing in rural areas, the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections is likely to be a curious mix of 2002 and 2017.
Immediately after the Balakot airstrikes, the Congress cancelled its much-touted 28 February Congress Working Committee meeting and mega rally in Ahmedabad, which also was to be the venue for Priyanka Gandhi’s first public address after venturing into politics. It was party president Rahul Gandhi’s big idea to take the 2019 Lok Sabha election battle to Narendra Modi’s lair. These meetings eventually did take place but after a space of a fortnight. In the meantime, the BJP silently began its poaching spree of key Congress legislators from rural areas, particularly Saurashtra.
Saurashtra used to be a BJP bastion since 1995, which was shaken for the first time in 2017. No wonder then that the ruling party in the state has begun to focus its attention on this critical region, more than 75% of which is rural and agricultural hinterland. In the last two months, key Congress leaders in areas covering as many as seven Lok Sabha seats in Saurashtra have defected.
One of the defectors, Jawahar Chavda, was inducted into the Vijay Rupani government as a cabinet minister within 24 hours of joining the BJP.
Months earlier, another senior leader from the important Koli community and a legislator from Jasdan falling under Rajkot Lok Sabha constituency, Kunvarji Bavalia, resigned from the Congress to be made a cabinet minister on the same day. In fact, as many as 34 leaders of various hues, including sitting and former legislators as well as former MPs, have switched over from the Congress to the BJP in the past five years. And a majority of them hailed from rural areas, largely Saurashtra.
Saurashtra is to Gujarat what Uttar Pradesh is to India in terms of the proportion of legislators (54 members of legislative assembly) it sends to the state assembly. But there is some churning in north Gujarat also with Congress legislator from Unjha assembly seat, Asha Patel, quitting to join the BJP. With the help of Asha Patel, once a close associate of Hardik Patel, the Congress had snatched a traditional BJP stronghold in Mehsana, the home district of the Modi-Shah duo. Another shock came for the Congress early last week when young turk and emerging OBC (other backward classes) leader Alpesh Thakore and his aide Dhavalsinh Zala, both MLAs from north Gujarat, quit the party. North Gujarat is a Patidar and OBC dominant region, with a mix of rural and semi-urban areas, where the Congress was hoping to pick up three of the four Lok Sabha seats.
The key reasons for BJP’s 2017 reversal—severe farmer distress, unemployment, and the adverse impact created due to the twin blows of demonetization and GST—are all still very much alive. Besides, with the summer setting in, water woes of the farmers in the drought-prone parts of the state would also come into play.
Ask Keshubhai in Modadaar village in Porbandar about the election and he immediately says: “There is nothing for farmers in the scheme of things under the present government. Not a single one of their promises to farmers has been fulfilled. Where is the Narmada water for irrigation or drinking?" In the region, water trickles in once in ten days. Survival largely depends on water tankers.
“They seem to be merely mocking our situation," rues Hardasbhai in the nondescript Kadegi village, when asked about the ₹6,000 aid announced by the central government for all farmers. “We will get a paltry amount of ₹2,000 first. It would have been better if this was not given. We have not received adequate support prices for our groundnut and cotton crops. The government should have looked into that," Hardasbhai says.
“We are not going to take any of the rhetoric this time. We need a good candidate who will help us in the true sense. We don’t want big promises," asserts an angry Rambhai in Sagra.
Keshubhai, Hardasbhai and Rambhai are representative voices of almost the entire Saurashtra region. Just change their names and that of their villages and the same complaints reverberate across the belt.
There’s also the omnipresent Hardik Patel factor. This time, Hardik Patel is firmly in the Congress camp. The firebrand youth leader’s massive agitation for reservations to the Patidar (or Patel) community made a huge impact in Saurashtra, which has a sizeable population of the Patidar community. There are three Lok Sabha seats (out of the seven in this region) entirely dominated by the Patidars (or Patels), and the Congress won a majority of the assembly seats that fall within those three parliamentary seats in 2017.
The stream of defections from these assembly segments has propped up the ruling party’s hopes, however. An influential leader from the Ahir community and son of a Congress veteran, Jawahar Chavda, who was inducted into the BJP government as a minister, has been a four-time MLA from Manavadar. His Manavadar constituency falls under Porbandar Lok Sabha seat, though it is in the neighbouring Junagadh district. His joining the BJP is significant in view of the fact that the ruling party had lost all seven assembly seats under Junagadh in 2017.
Similarly, the BJP could manage to win only two assembly seats while the Congress walked away with the remaining five under the Amreli Lok Sabha seat. Here, significantly, Ahir leader Kanubhai Kalsaria, a former three-time BJP MLA from Mahuva, has recently joined the Congress. Amreli has a huge Patidar population and is a rural region with farmers in severe distress. Congress candidate for the seat, Paresh Dhanani, a Patidar, who is also the leader of opposition in the state assembly, is a force to reckon with, making it an uphill task for the BJP to win the seat.
The upshot of this frenzy of defections in a landscape of rural angst and urban nationalism is this: the state may throw up a split verdict, though the BJP still clearly holds the edge. Large sections of Modi’s home state still find it hard to look past the man who has been on a steady ascent since 2002. But the era of clean sweeps at the polls may be coming to a close.
In many ways, Gujarat has not moved on from 2017 despite having a new government in the state for well over a year. The urban-rural divide is still unmistakable and omnipresent. The ruling BJP’s formula to bridge this divide seems to be its shrill time-tested Modi versus Congress-Pakistan-anti-development rhetoric. The Congress, meanwhile, has been making a strong pro-farmer, pro-poor, anti-crony capitalism pitch. Irrespective of which of those two turn out to be the winning narrative, the story from Saurashtra and Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati may be entirely different.