Tuesday, May 30, 2023

A Blue Riddle For The Shah Of Saffron

A Blue Riddle For The Shah Of Saffron

How reservation and Dalit outrage against atrocities affect comings and goings in the state’s ruling party

Who’s Who Photograph by PTI
  • Her Stand: Anandiben was against ­conceding the Patidars’ demand for ­reservation as OBCs in jobs and education.
  • The Humiliation: Amit Shah and V. Rupani were at her side when they ­announced 10 per cent reservation to EBCs.
  • Her Plans: She had said earlier she won’t ­contest the 2017 assembly election, but ­recently told her inner circle that she might.


In May 2014, as prime minister-elect, an emotional Narendra Modi bid farewell to the Gujarat assembly in Gandhinagar with words of reflection and hope. To the MLAs of his state, Modi had said back then: “My success lies in how you take forward this journey of development. And I am confident that Gujarat will surge ahead after me.” Unfortunately for the BJP, Modi’s Gujarat model, craf­ted over a long time and sold with gusto to the world, now lies in tatters. To be precise, it took just two years and three months after his elevation as prime minister for things to reach this pass in his home state. Anandiben Patel, his successor who recently quit following widespread Dalit protests against atrocities by gau rakshaks (cow protectors), leaves behind not just a sluggish bureaucracy—despite Modi’s talk of “minimum government, maximum governance”—but also a bitterly divided party whose popularity is finally taking a beating in the state where it has been enjoying an unin­terrupted spell in power since 2001. In fact, a city newspaper reported an internal survey carried out by the RSS where it was speculated that if Gujarat goes to polls today, the BJP would bag no more than 65 seats in a House of 182.

Gujarat convenor of AAP and former BJP legislator Kanu Kalsaria attributes this speculation as much to unemployment and the escalating cost and falling quality of education as to misgovernance. According to Gujarat Congress chief Bharat Solanki, what really hastened Anandiben’s departure was the sure prospect of defeat in the assembly election due next year.

To be fair to Anandiben Patel, she had to deal not only with Modi’s larger-than-life legacy, but also with the overbearing presence of BJP national president Amit Shah. With bureaucrats encouraged to bypass the chief minister and several important decisions taken in New Delhi and not in Gandhinagar, it was always going to be an impossible task for her. But when the turn came to take the flak, it would be she, not Shah, at the receiving end.

Anandiben was against conceding the Pat­idars’ plea for reservation in government jobs as well as admission to educational institutions under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. She must have felt humiliated when Shah, with state party president Vijay Rupani, who was also a minister in her cabinet, sat beside her to make the announcement of 10 per cent reservation for Economically Backward Classes (EBC) at the party headquarters.

Just a day after she submitted her resignation to the governor, she stood ‘unofficially’ vindicated though. On August 4, the Guj­arat High Court rejected the government’s May 4 notification that had granted 10 per cent EBC reservation in educational institutions from this academic year.

That’s one of the many challenges the new chief minister faces. Nitin Patel, the senior-most minister in the Anandiben cabinet and strongly tipped to replace her, has gone on record saying the state government will back its decision on EBC quota despite the adverse high court order, and knock on the doors of the Supreme Court to get it reversed. But such reprieve from the apex court is easier said than done.

As for Anandiben, it’s still far from the end of the road. She has apparently reviewed her earlier decision to not contest the 2017 election, and told her inner circle that she (like Shah) intends to retain her assembly seat. She has also said she intends to stay on in Gujarat, scotching speculation on her being tipped to take up a gubernatorial assignment.

No doubt there is concern in Delhi about the party’s prospects in Gujarat. “The Dalit crisis in Una and Anandiben’s insincere response will have long-term repercussions,” says a senior leader. “We will see the damage in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab next year.”

While Punjab may be a foregone conclusion for the BJP, with senior leaders already predicting a single-digit tally, it is Uttar Pradesh that holds massive significance for the saffron party.

With the RSS-backed pro-Dalit cam­­paign, Shah would not want to lose out on the support of the nearly 21 per cent Dalit voters in the most populous state in north India. More so, because in Punjab, the 31.9 per cent Dalits are unl­ikely to vote BJP given the anti-Akali mood in the state. The BJP is a coalition partner with the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab. “What could have been contained in Una has now become a nationwide wild fire that will be difficult to douse,” says a senior BJP leader.

While the BJP under Modi in Gujarat was comfortably placed with a non-aggressive Congress, the AAP, led by Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, is being treated as a potentially damaging opponent. “AAP has been active in Gujarat since 2014. Their role in the recent Dalit protests against the Una case is a warning sign,” says a Gujarat BJP leader.

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Hardik Patel continues to rally the Patidars behind him. Keeping him in jail for 200 days on sedition charges and hounding him even in Rajasthan, where he has been externed due to the conditions in his bail order from the high court, have hardened feelings. Then there is 40-year-old Alpesh Thakore, who helms the Thakore Sena—part of an emerging OBC coalition. For starters, the Sena has issued an ultimatum to the government on dealing with bootlegging. This is earning them brownie points and strengthening their hold on their own community. Another firebrand leader in the making is 35-year-old Jignesh Mevani, a lawyer-activist heading the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti. At a rally in Ahmedabad, he warned of violent rep­risals in case of another attack on Dalits.

The new CM in Gujarat will, therefore, have his hands full. On his list will be farmer disenchantment, commercial logjam, poor agrarian performance, lack of jobs, general disillusionment with the BJP and the falling human development index of the state. His party will have to work doubly hard on building a united internal structure, raising local issues, mobilising local support and sentiment, building caste alliances and campaigning from the front with a leader who can both charm and challenge.

By R.K. Misra in Gandhinagar with Prarthna Gahilote in Mumbai