Rajkot: Despite the 2017 Patidar quota agitation behind it and the Centre’s decision giving 10 per cent reservation for the economically weaker section (EWS) having changed the sentiment of the influential community towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat, the party is not leaving anything to chance in Saurashtra region, senior BJP leaders told ThePrint.
The region that houses the community in a sizeable number along with the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) can prove to be a decisive factor in the upcoming polls, they said.
Elections in Gujarat will be held in two phases on 1 and 5 December. The counting of votes will take place on 8 December. Of the total 182 seats, 48 are in Saurashtra.
Campaigning for the first phase of the elections ended on Tuesday. As many as 788 candidates are in the fray for 89 seats across 19 districts, including the Saurashtra region.
In 2017, the Patidar agitation drove the community away from the BJP and hugely dented its position in the region. The ruling party could only win 19 seats in Saurashtra in 2017 as against 30 in 2012. In contrast, the Congress increased its tally from 15 to 28 seats. This played a part in bringing down the BJP’s overall tally to 99, the lowest since 1995.
BJP’s Saurashtra strategy
Though the situation on the ground has changed since 2017, the party is going all out to ensure that the BJP comes out at the top in its traditional stronghold, senior party functionaries in Rajkot, which is considered the heart of Saurashtra, told ThePrint.
“PM Narendra Modi has campaigned in Saurashtra, including Rajkot, four times in November itself. This is how seriously we are taking Saurashtra despite the Patidar backing us this time around,” senior BJP leader and former Union minister Vallabhbhai Kathiria told ThePrint.
According to BJP sources, Patidars constitute approximately 1.5 crore of Gujarat’s total population of around 6 crore, and are said to influence votes in close to 65-70 of the total 182 seats.
In Rajkot South — one of the four seats in Rajkot, which has a Patidar majority — the BJP has fielded a first-timer, industrialist Ramesh Tilara, who is also a trustee of the Shree Khodaldham Trust which wields massive influence over the Patidars, especially the Leuva Patels (one of the two sub-castes of the Patidar community, the other being the Kadva Patel).
The Trust has built the Khodal Maa temple, the presiding deity of the Leuva Patels, at Rajkot’s Kagvad village.
Tilara was fielded after the sitting MLA Govindbhai Patel was dropped. “Fielding Tilara will ensure that the Shree Khodaldham Temple Trust is behind us, though the trust does not associate itself with politics,” said another senior BJP functionary.
The functionary admitted that there is some heartburn among a section of BJP workers in some seats, including Rajkot South and West after the sitting MLAs Govindbhai Patel and Vijay Rupani, who was the former CM, respectively, were dropped for new faces. But the party functionary feels it will not be enough to turn the tide against the BJP.
“We are working behind the scenes to ensure that those who were dropped don’t play spoilsport,” a second BJP leader said.
Talking to ThePrint, Tilara said that back in 2017, the Patel youth became part of the partisan movement. “As time passed, the government proactively took initiatives and the resentment of Patidars faded. Even the Patel elders stepped in to convince the youth to draw back from the agitation,” he said.
The Supreme Court verdict upholding the Centre’s decision on EWS reservation will definitely change the attitude of the Patel community towards the BJP, Tilara added. “But even before the verdict, their resentment had already faded. Also, Hardik Patel, who was the youth face of the Patidar movement, joining the BJP has helped those who were left uneasy after the movement waned.”
Triangular contest with AAP targeting Congress vote bank
In many seats in Saurashtra, it’s going to be a triangular contest featuring the BJP, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
But Congress leaders are reluctant to hazard a guess on how much damage the AAP will cause and to whom.
Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee vice-president Hemang Vasavada said though it is difficult to tell at this stage, whose vote the AAP will ultimately cut, Kejriwal’s party is mainly targetting two segments that are traditional Congress vote banks — the lower middle class and the poor.
“They (the AAP) may not win seats but will cut votes. And that will be the deciding factor. In 2017, of the 182 seats, the margin of victory was less than 3,000 votes in 26. It will be in such seats that the AAP will cause maximum damage,” said Vasavada, who is from Rajkot.
Defection by the Congress leaders to the BJP and the AAP along with absence of central leaders from campaigning have also dampened the spirit of party workers. Though former Congress president Rahul Gandhi addressed a rally in Rajkot last week, party functionaries on the ground feel it’s too little, too late.
“In 2017, we won 28 of the 48 seats from Saurashtra region. Repeating the performance this time is really tough,” a senior state Congress leader told ThePrint.
The AAP leaders, meanwhile, are continuing their campaigning with a ragtag group of supporters.
Every morning, Rahul Bhuva, who is contesting from Rajkot East on an AAP ticket goes to the busy Parevdi Chowk and posts himself there with less than a dozen supporters. He waves to people crossing the intersection on their cars, bikes or buses. An autorickshaw, fitted with loudspeaker and AAP banners, stands at a distance from the intersection, intermittently blaring the party’s poll song and exhorting people to vote for Bhuva.
At one of the traffic intersections in Rajkot Sunday morning, Bhuva told ThePrint: “We believe that people want change, that people want young and educated leaders. The AAP is such a party. We might not have money or resources, but our intentions are good.”
The AAP has promised free electricity, improved education system and hospital facilities among its main priorities, he said. “And, we believe, people will give us a chance.”
(Edited by Anumeha Saxena)