PRIME Minister Narendra Modi’s famed and favourite ‘development’ agenda has taken a back seat in Gujarat as the state heads for a crucial assembly election that may determine the course of India’s political discourse for the next few years.
Despite shouting from roof tops about ‘development’ continuing to be its main agenda, the ruling BJP and its chief campaigner Modi are keeping no stone unturned to deploy the age-old deadly concoction of casteism and communal polarisation to win the elections.
Obviously unsettled by the opposition Congress cobbling up a caste combination akin to the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) grouping which had fetched the highest ever 149 assembly seats (out of total 182) for the ministry led by Madhavsinh Solanki in the 1980s, the ruling BJP has increased its party ticket allocations to Patels and OBCs – the caste groups which have gravitated towards the opposition Congress.
Though the BJP had been ruling Gujarat for the last two decades, the unification of Patels, OBCs and Dalits around the Congress has made it nervous this time. Patels, OBCs and Dalits put together make a substantial portion of the population which can tilt the electoral balance adversely for the ruling BJP.
Significantly, this combination under the Congress umbrella now excludes the Muslims comprising nearly nine per cent of the state’s population and were part of Solanki’s KHAM grouping which was directly pitted against the Patels who were then against reservations for backward classes.
The Muslims have probably been taken for granted by the Congress as a matter of routine but keeping them away is probably necessary if the party wants to keep the Patels with them as this influential community’s pathological hatred for the minorities is unlikely to wither away just due to their newly developed antagonism towards the BJP over the reservation issue and subsequent death of 14 youths in police atrocities.
Thus, despite all its claims of secular credentials, the Congress this time had to choose between the Patels aggrieved with BJP and the Muslims considered their traditional vote bank.
And, for the ruling BJP, going back to caste calculations to seek votes is a tacit admission that its star campaigner Modi’s hyped up ‘charisma’ can no longer be relied upon for a sure return to power in Gujarat, the prime minister’s home state.
The BJP’s eagerness to appease the Patels, whose agitation demanding reservations in jobs in government and seats in higher educational institutions had brought down the Anandiben Patel ministry last year, is understandable as the saffron party had heavily banked on this community for nearly three decades not only for votes but also for money, logistics and muscle power during its various programmes like rath yatras, rallies and other extravagant events to showcase Gujarat as an ideal investment destination.
Thus, for the Gujarat BJP, loss of support from Patels is not just loss of numerical votes but also a loss of resources required in the run up to the elections. That is the reason why the departure of a section of Patels from the party fold has hurt BJP the most.
The BJP also suffered a loss of face as its attempts to malign Hardik Patel with circulation of the “sex” videos in the social media too did not yield its desired results. Not only that ordinary people quickly attributed the videos to the BJP’s dirty tricks, but many people also believed that these were ‘morphed’ or ‘photoshopped’.
Most significant of reactions to the “sex” videos came from some Patel women in eastern Ahmedabad where they openly declared that the ‘scenes’ confirm that “our boy” has now come of age.
But, the Patel factor is not the only trouble the BJP has to reckon with as other caste groups like OBCs and Dalits too have formally drifted towards the Congress with the common objective of defeating the saffron party.
The BJP need not be bothered about the OBCs and Dalits vowing to go with the Congress as portions of these caste groups had already been the vote banks of the opposition party and, thus, not a new phenomenon.
But, then, dragging the election back to the caste calculations might not help either the ruling BJP or the opposition Congress as people are more concerned about their livelihood questions like jobs, water and loss of agricultural income.
As Gujarat is a highly urbanised state with nearly 43 per cent population living in cities and towns, the BJP may feel happy with its influence in these areas. But, the rural people are feeling left out due to the falling prices of cash crops like groundnut and cotton.
Groundnut, a major cash crop in Saurashtra area of the state, has recorded an all time high production of 31 million tonnes this year but the farmers are not getting the remunerative prices for it. Against a declared Minimum Support Price (MSP) of Rs 900 per 20 kgs, the farmers are resorting to distress sale at market prices hovering around Rs 650.
Similar is the case with cotton crop whose market prices have crashed and selling at MSP is difficult as the online payment system of the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) is not functioning properly.
Missing from the election cacophony is the plight of Dalits, just about seven per cent of the population, who remain landless and their traditional occupation of skinning dead cattle too is under threat due to the rise of cow vigilantism under the BJP regime.