Gujarat’s battle lines

The BJP juggernaut with its propaganda about the Gujarat model of development has been brought up short by new players in the State’s electoral battle in 2017.

Late in the evening on November 13, 2017, several senior political journalists of Ahmedabad received serial calls from some spokespersons and leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a peculiar request. All of them wanted the journalists to mention in their copy that the BJP had no role in circulating the alleged sex video CD featuring Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel. The request was totally at variance with the positions adopted by a large number of BJP and Sangh Parivar social media activists a few hours earlier. The CD had been uploaded that afternoon and had become viral on social media, with the Sangh Parivar “cyber warriors” spreading it vociferously with enough suggestions that they had successfully cornered the young Patidar leader, who was posing a serious challenge to the BJP in the State.

However, this sense of triumph did not last long. Within hours, it was evident that the “expose” did not have the desired political impact for the BJP and its associate organisations. On the contrary, PAAS supporters, especially the large number of youngsters in their ranks, appeared even more aggressive in their opposition to the BJP. The invasion of privacy appeared to make a greater impact on popular perception, rather than any message of loose morals. Sangh Parivar insiders admitted that they quickly realised not only that the video footage was not going to have the desired impact but also that it might boomerang on the BJP. Evidently, this understanding led to this peculiar serial requests to senior political journalists on the night of November 13.

Dirty tricks boomerang

A group of veteran Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activists from Maninagar, the Assembly constituency in Ahmedabad that Narendra Modi as Chief Minister represented from 2002 to 2014, told Frontline that the “Hardik Patel video” was the third specific instance of the BJP suffering reverses in the space of a few weeks.

Chief Minister Vijay Rupani was forced to backtrack on his allegations against senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel in the name of jehadi terrorist links. The Gujarat anti-terrorist squad arrested two alleged ISIS operatives from Surat on October 25, and it was found that one of them was working with Ankleshwar’s Sardar Patel Hospital in Bharuch. Rupani immediately launched a campaign saying that Ahmed Patel was a trustee of the hospital and hence should take responsibility for employing the ISIS operative. He also demanded Patel’s resignation as a member of the Rajya Sabha. The Congress leader countered this by producing an affidavit that clearly showed he had resigned his trusteeship way back in 2014. He then wrote to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh seeking an impartial and objective investigation and also asserting that criminal inquiries should be left to investigation agencies and should not become a plaything in the hands of politicians with vested interests and acting on electoral considerations. As in the “Hardik Patel sex CD episode”, public opinion soon swung in favour of Ahmed Patel, leaving the State BJP leadership in intense embarrassment.

On October 22, the BJP announced that a number of PAAS leaders were leaving the organisation because they were disillusioned with Hardik Patel’s leadership and upset with his overtures to the Congress. A prominent name highlighted by the BJP was that of north Gujarat PAAS convener Narendra Patel. While Narendra Patel did announce his resignation from the PAAS in the presence of State BJP president Jitu Vaghani, he retracted it within a few hours, alleging that the BJP leadership had offered him a bribe of Rs.1 crore to join the ruling party. He also displayed Rs.10 lakh at a press conference, stating that this was the advance handed over to him. Soon, another former PAAS member, Nikhil Savani, who joined the BJP in July, resigned from the ruling party and castigated its leadership, including Rupani, as opportunists who targeted political gains without being concerned about people’s welfare.

Sangh Parivar insiders said that the “Hardik Patel video” was meant to overcome the impact of these earlier reverses. There was little doubt among the public that the saffron party and its associates were behind the video. The impression was reinforced as a video of the man who claimed to have leaked the “CD”, seen in the company of BJP State general secretary and Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, started circulating soon after the Hardik Patel video was uploaded. “In any case,” said a veteran RSS activist from Maninagar, “even the top Sangh Parivar hierarchy knows that a dirty tricks department has flourished under Amit Shah and Modi in Gujarat BJP for many years, and they are known for similar exploits. The ouster of the dynamic Sangh Parivar activist Sanjay Joshi as a powerful presence in the BJP was managed in the early 2000s by circulating a CD that showed Joshi in a compromising position. Some Congress leaders were also targeted by the department in a similar fashion.” The veteran activist also pointed out that while such tactics worked in the past, it did not do so this time.

The reasons can be located in a number of factors, and this is acknowledged even within the BJP. To start with, the myth of the so-called Gujarat model of development, built up through the effective use of propaganda during Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister, has by now got exposed as a mechanism essentially benefiting a clutch of crony capitalists. A number of reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and agitations by Dalits, Patels, farmers and fishermen have contributed to the busting of the myth. Consequently, there is a new kind of caste orientation developing at the grass roots under the leadership of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. Adding to this social climate were the economic woes inflicted on the trading and farming communities by the new GST regime and the persistent ripple effects of demonetisation.

All this has brought about a marked shift from past elections, especially in terms of atmospherics. Across the State, more and more people from all walks of life are volubly criticising the track record of the BJP governments in the State and at the Centre. A group of farmers and agricultural labourers in Nandoli spoke to Frontline on the subject.