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BJP Fights to Save Gujarat

Subodh Varma |
The whole playbook of electoral tactics is now deployed in the state with PM Modi himself leading the battle.
BJP Fights to Save Gujarat

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI

On November 10, when the first list of BJP candidates for Gujarat Assembly elections was announced in New Delhi, there was a palpable sense of surprise among political observers though in Gujarat itself what was coming was anticipated. According to reports, among the 160 candidate names announced for the 182-member Assembly, 38 were Congress defectors and the same number of sitting BJP legislators in the outgoing Assembly had been dropped. Several former ministers and former chief minister Vijay Rupani had earlier ‘voluntarily’ declined to contest the upcoming elections, reportedly after being advised by the high command in Delhi.

Earlier, on September 11, Vijay Rupani who had led the BJP in the 2017 election had been asked to quit along with his whole Cabinet and an unanticipated Bhupendra Patel was installed in his place with a brand new team of ministers.

Clearly, the BJP top brass is sensing that it is not going to be a cakewalk in Gujarat. Replacing incumbent chief ministers and ministers has long been part of the election playbook for the BJP. Recently, it summarily changed the chief minister of Tripura in an attempt to revive its flagging performance in the Northeastern state which it had won for the first time in 2018. In various other states also, it has effected such internal ‘regime changes’ when faced with trouble. So much so that even the Union Cabinet under PM Modi saw a purge of sorts in July 2021 when several senior and well-known faces were summarily sacked, perhaps to mitigate criticism of the Covid-19 pandemic handling and other issues.

But changing top personnel in the state government is not the only sign that the BJP is jittery and pulling out all stops to win the state which it has ruled continuously since 1995, except for a brief period of about one and a half years in 1996-1998 when a splinter group led by Shankersinh Vaghela took over with outside support of the Congress.

Modi’s Visits and Promises

Starting March 2022, PM Modi has already visited his home state 12 times out of which 10 visits have been in the last six months (since June). His first visit was on 11-12 March, just a day after results for Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections were announced and BJP swept to power again. Modi held exuberant roadshows in Ahmedabad and adjacent Gandhinagar during this visit, practically declaring open the election campaign for Gujarat. It was a clear case of cashing in on the victory in UP.

An estimate based on media reports indicates that besides roadshows, public meetings, conferences etc., the Prime Minister has already made announcements of projects worth Rs.1.18 lakh crore during these visits to his home state. This is nothing new – he has made such announcements a standard part of the BJP’s election playbook. Whether it works or not is uncertain because in many states where such announcements and foundation stone laying jamborees were held, BJP didn’t do too well (Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu) but in many others, BJP did win. Perhaps this is a necessary but not sufficient condition to win an election, in the BJP’s strategy.

However, the major purpose of these events is for the prime minister to provide public exposure to himself. Modi is, after all, the BJP’s single biggest vote catcher. As he himself candidly declared in a recent visit to Himachal Pradesh while campaigning for Assembly elections there, "You need not remember the BJP candidate, only remember the symbol of `Lotus` when you go to cast your vote. I have come to you with `Lotus`. Wherever you see the symbol of `Lotus` that means it is the BJP and that Modi ji has come to you." For a party that claims to be the world’s biggest political party, it is bizarre that its leader and the country’s prime minister has to tell the voters that nobody else matters but him alone.

With another 3-4 weeks to go before polling on December 5 and 8, Modi will be surely campaigning more in Gujarat though the announcements of various projects will stop because the Model Code of Conduct has come into force after the declaration of dates by the Election Commission.

The Hindutva Card

Gujarat was the crucible in which the BJP’s Hindutva governance model was forged and evolved. It is noteworthy that two decades after the deadly wave of anti-Muslim violence that engulfed the state, the ruling party needs to time and again turn towards its communal tactics when an election approaches. This time round, preparations for elections included the release, in August this year, of 11 persons convicted for gang rape and murder in the infamous Bilkis Bano case of 2002. They were serving life sentences but were released as per a remission policy adopted by the state government. Later, it was reported that the Centre had acquiesced to their release. This appears to be a move to pander to extreme Hindutva sentiments though there was considerable outrage at the move.

Later, the Gujarat government announced that it was setting up a committee “for implementing” the Uniform Civil Code in the state. This is another of the pet issues of the Hindutva supporters, led by BJP/RSS. It has been turned into a slogan for minority baiting and recent months have seen some BJP-ruled states making similar announcements, although such implementation in one state remains legally untenable. Another step announced recently by the central home ministry is the notification empowering collectors of Anand and Mehsana districts in Gujarat to grant citizenship under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The law had attracted vehement countrywide opposition for being discriminatory against Muslims for granting citizenship as it fast tracks the grant of citizenship only to applicants of non-Muslim faiths.

What these public announcements want to achieve is clear: they are seeking to mollify the Hindutva electoral base in the state before the elections. This is a bit ironic considering that the Muslims in Gujarat are already highly marginalised after the 2002 violence and subsequent discriminatory behaviour meted out to them over the years. But, what this does show is that the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that its Hindutva-based appeal is sustained through the elections because it fears that discontent may otherwise come to the fore.

Discontent in Gujarat

The past five years have seen a slew of developments that have revealed the failings of the ‘Gujarat Model’ yet again. At the time of the last election in 2017, the Patidar agitation was in full flow, led by the young Hardik Patel, who was later put behind bars by the government. He joined the Congress after his release but has finally ended up with the BJP, picked to contest the election this time as a saffron candidate. But the Patidar agitation was an expression of the farmers’ deep discontent over rising input prices, and falling returns – issues that have only got further aggravated in these years. Low incomes is not just a burning problem for farmers. The state has some of the lowest wages for agricultural workers and also low minimum wages for industrial workers. Gujarat is a well-industrialised state with about 43% of the Gross State Domestic Product coming from the secondary sector in 2020-21, as per the Socio-Economic Review of Gujarat government presented with the Budget earlier this year. Yet low wages, onerous working conditions and job insecurity remain unresolved issues with the workers in the State’s industrial sector.

There is also widespread discontent at the handling of Covid pandemic. Although Gujarat officially claimed that there were 10,164 deaths due to Covid till January 17, 2022, later, the state government admitted in the Supreme Court that till February 3, 2022, it had received 1,02,203 Covid death claims out of which it had approved 87,045 and disbursed Rs.50,000 compensation to 82,605 families. The state’s ramshackle healthcare system and the government’s cavalier attitude are largely held responsible for this tragedy. This is thought to have been a key factor in the removal of chief minister Vijay Rupani. But the larger problem of insufficient funds for healthcare continues to haunt the people, especially the marginalised sections.

Dalits, adivasis and Muslims too continue to face severe hardships and discrimination. These sections may gravitate towards the Congress in rural areas or perhaps opt for the Aam Aadmi Party in some of the urban areas, observers feel. Gujarat is a highly urbanised state with approximately 43% of the population living in urban areas as per the 2011 Census. As the Morbi tragedy indicated, urban local bodies are riven with corruption and function with merry impunity. This has led to much resentment against the ruling party in the state.

All these streams and threads of discontent are searching for an alternative. This is what has caused panic in BJP circles, despite the grandstanding about an assured win in the upcoming elections.

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