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Gujarat: BJP Woos Tribals, Patidars Before 2022 Polls, Congress Still Leaderless

BJP has appointed a Patidar chief minister, started a tribal wing of the state unit, and launched training workshops for its cadre ahead of the Assembly polls. Congress, on the other hand, is yet to get on its feet after its recent drubbing in local body polls.
Gujarat: BJP Woos Tribals, Patidars Before 2022 Polls, Congress Still Leaderless

Bhupendra Patel. Image Courtesy: PTI

Earlier this week, Gujarat’s chief minister Bhupendra Patel, while addressing a press conference in the aftermath of BJP’s landslide win in the Gandhinagar local body polls, said that the state president of BJP, CR Patil, aims to win all 182 seats in the upcoming Assembly elections.

The target may not be easy for BJP to achieve. The party’s vote share in state Assembly elections has been going down since 2002. In 2002 polls BJP won 127 out of 182 seats, which dropped to 117 in the year 2007, 115 in the year 2012, and 99 in 2017.

For the past year, the BJP government has been at the receiving end of public discontent owing to mismanagement of the pandemic, especially during the second wave. Noticeably, Gujarat accounts for the fourth-highest deaths in the country due to COVID-19 after Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Delhi.

BJP has also been in controversy after its party chief CR Patil left the state leadership befuddled as he distributed Remdesivir, the drug used to treat COVID-19, at a time when the Gujarat government had run out of stocks of the same.

The High Court repeatedly had to take suo motu cognition of matters related to the pandemic such as shortage of hospital beds, shortage of oxygen and Remdesivir, and on several occasions criticised the government on its handling of the pandemic.

The migrant worker crisis at the onset of the pandemic and the economic losses due to the lockdown has added to the anti-incumbency against BJP. Adding to the trouble for the party is the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the recently concluded local body polls, and discontentment amidst the Patidars against BJP.

Reportedly, these factors are believed to have been the reason behind the resignation of Vijay Rupani from the post of chief minister last month.

Noticeably, the Patidar community that makes up 15% of the electoral population had been the BJP’s traditional support base since 1984-85. Since 2015, however, BJP has been struggling to hold its sway over the community with the Patidar Anamat Andolan led by Hardik Patel shaking the vote base that had kept the party in power since 1995.

Congress, which had managed to cut into the vote bank of Patels in 2017 Assembly polls, had a falling out with the community after it refused to give tickets to the Patidar youth leaders in Surat civic body polls in December last year. This resulted in multiple Patidar leaders joining the AAP. Owing to the votes of Patidars who dominate six out of 16 constituencies in Surat city, AAP emerged as the party in opposition in the Surat civic body.

Thereafter, the politically influential Patidar community started demanding top roles for Patidar leaders and even a chief minister from the community. In June this year, social leaders of the community met at Khodaldham temple, the primary place of worship of Leuva Patels located in Kagvad, near Rajkot city in the Saurashtra region, and demanded key positions for Patidar leaders both in Congress and the ruling BJP.

Three months later in September, Bhupendra Patel, a leader from the Patidar community and a first-time MLA from Ghatlodia constituency (Ahmedabad) was made the chief minister replacing Vijay Rupani. The party also brought in 24 other MLAs, promoting them as ministers. Barring three ministers, all are inexperienced but belong to Patidar and OBC groups, which form the largest vote bank in the state.

The party is also trying to woo the tribals who have traditionally not supported BJP. In the 2017 assembly polls, out of the 27 reserved seats, Congress won 15, the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) won two and the BJP won nine.

The tribals account for about 15% of Gujarat’s population and 27 out of 182 assembly seats reserved for scheduled tribes. Apart from this tribal population spread across South and Central Gujarat also form a decisive vote bank in 14 unreserved constituencies.

Last week, the Gujarat government announced a financial aid of Rs 5,000 to each tribal who undertakes the pilgrimage to ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ in Ayodhya. While making the announcement at Shabari Dham at Subir village, Dang district, state tourism minister Purnesh Modi said that the financial aid would be in line with similar assistance doled out for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, Sindhu Darshan and Shravan Tirth Yatra.

BJP, which has for years depended on the systematic process of political infiltration carried out by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other right-wing affiliated organisations in tribal districts, held its first meeting of the newly formed Scheduled Tribes Morcha at the party’s headquarters in Gandhinagar last month.

With less than a year to go for the 2022 assembly polls, the new CM Bhupendra Patel is making sure that no stone is left unturned in preparation. In his very first cabinet meeting, he asked his ministers and office bearers to keep Mondays and Tuesdays for interacting with the common man and elected representatives, who come to them with grievances and other issues.

BJP seem to have swung into election mode with training sessions for its spokespersons in September this year. The first session that was held in Vadodara for spokespersons of central Gujarat saw an image consultant guiding the leaders who are to appear on TV with details like what colour of the outfits they should wear, to hand gestures they make when debating, etc.

Starting October 22, the party has organised a three-day training camp of the Ahmedabad city unit in Ambaji, Banaskantha. The camp that is part of the party’s initiative to train office-bearers and members, will have talks on subjects such as ideology and history of Jan Sangh and BJP, Deendayal Upadhyay’s thoughts on ‘integral humanism’, schemes of the state and central governments, issues on media and social media, etc. The party will hold similar training camps for each district and eight major cities of Gujarat.

Meanwhile, Congress has remained leaderless in the state for the past six months. Gujarat Congress president Amit Chavda and leader of opposition Paresh Dhanani resigned in March this year from their posts following the debacle in the local elections. Subsequently, in May, AICC general secretary and in-charge of the affairs in Gujarat Rajeev Satav died of post-COVID-19 complications. The party also lost veteran leader Ahmed Patel to the pandemic last year.

Viewing the upcoming polls in December next year, Congress state leaders had requested Rahul Gandhi in June to make the appointments. The party leaders met Rahul Gandhi last week to decide on filling two key positions – state president and leader of opposition. Reportedly, three groups within the state Congress – former GPCC president Bharatsinh Solanki, Arjun Modhwadia and the state working president Hardik Patel are in the dock for the key posts.

Congress that won 77 seats in 2017 Assembly polls, its best performance since 1985, has weakened in the past four years. Twelve Congress MLAs have defected to BJP so far.

In the local polls held in February 2021, Congress, which used to be traditionally stronger in rural areas, was wiped out from taluka and districts. The party lost 200 seats even before the actual polling. Some candidates withdrew their forms while some changed allegiances on the last days prior to polls, despite having the party’s mandate. On some seats, Congress conceded defeat because the nominations were rejected.

Thus, Congress went from winning 389 out of 572 seats in 2015 to just 55 seats in 2021. The BJP scored 483 seats and AAP won 27 seats. Apart from Ahmedabad and Jamnagar, Congress could not even reach double digits, and in Surat, none of the party candidates could win.

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