BJP bloodied on Modi turf

Gujarat rural poll rout

By Basant Rawat and Radhika Ramaseshan
  • Published 3.12.15

New Delhi/Gandhinagar, Dec. 2: The BJP was today routed in rural elections in Gujarat, Narendra Modi's backyard, suffering its third hard electoral knock after the Assembly poll defeats in Delhi and Bihar.

While it lost heavily to the Congress in the zilla parishad and taluka (sub-district) panchayats, the BJP more or less held on to its urban bastions although it lost a handful of municipalities to its rival. (See chart)

The BJP has won just six of the 31 zilla parishads and 96 of the 230 taluka panchayats while the Congress has bagged 24 and 134, respectively - a huge turnaround from the previous local body polls five years ago.

The ruling party has retained all the corporations in the bigger cities but lost seven smaller towns.

These elections were held against the backdrop of the first serious political challenge to the BJP in Gujarat since 1995. It had come in the form of the agitation for reservations for Patels, spearheaded by the rookie Hardik Patel who has no identified political allegiance.

Hardik, just 22, had demanded that the Patels, an intermediate caste like the Jats of north India and the Lingayats of Karnataka, be bracketed with the Other Backward Classes so that they qualified for reservations in education and jobs.

Although the demand was deemed "unjustified" by veteran observers of Gujarat politics, given the perception that the Patels were well off socially and economically, Hardik's street shows drew huge crowds.

His protests on a one-point agenda coalesced with the larger sense of discontent over rising prices and farmers' alleged inability to get a fair price for their crops and resonated in the cities and villages.

A police crackdown on Hardik's supporters deepened the resentment he had managed to set off against the state government.

Although Hardik did not float a party or join any, the Congress, down and out in Gujarat for more than a decade, swiftly latched on to the agitation and used it as a stick to beat the government with.

As soon as chief minister Anandi Patel announced there was no question of considering the Patels for reservations and reaffirmed the government's commitment to protecting the OBC, Dalit and tribal quotas, the Congress spied an opening to win the Patels over.

It fielded a record number of Patels, including Hardik backers. The epicentre of Hardik's movement was Mehsana in north Gujarat, which is Anandi's home district. Here, in a taluka, Unjha, the Patel resentment was so high that the BJP fielded its candidates as independents, fearing to contest on its symbol.

It lost not just in Unjha but in the Mehsana zilla parishad as well as the municipal corporation.

In Patel-dominated Saurashtra, the Congress swept the panchayat polls in Rajkot, Surendranagar, Gandhinagar, Morbi and Amreli.

"Thank you Gujarat," tweeted Congress veteran Ahmed Patel, a Gujarati, despite his party's defeat in his home district of Bharuch. "These results indicate the BJP government is on its way out in Gujarat."

There was no official reaction from the BJP in Delhi but a senior minister claimed the results had "replicated the pattern seen in the Assembly polls".

"The BJP wins 80 per cent of the urban seats while those in the rural areas are evenly divided between us and the Congress."

Gujarat BJP spokesperson I.K. Jadeja appeared less gung-ho.

"We suffered losses. Our solace is that while the margins were big in the urban areas, those in the villages were small," he said.

"Still, we shall have to analyse why we lost the rural pockets and how to cut our losses before the Assembly elections (due in two years)."

The BJP's Dalit and Other Backward Classes MPs stressed that if the party was not "wiped out, as we expected", it was because the OBCs, Dalits and tribal communities had backed it.

"It's a lesson for our leaders to work on these communities instead of pandering to the Patels all the time," a Dalit MP said.