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BJP, Gujarat and Patidar Politics: 10 Factors To Piece The Puzzle

01/09/2015 2:17 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A Patidar or member of Patel community holds a mask of Indian freedom fighter and first Home Minister of Independent India Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as he participates in a rally in Ahmadabad, India, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. Members of Patel community held a rally Tuesday demanding reservations under the Other Backward Class (OBC) quota. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Ever since Hardik Patel and the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) began their fierce battle in Gujarat to win OBC status for the affluent Patidar community, political pundits have been peering into their crystal balls to make predictions about the future of politics in the state. Since much of the andolan's ire is directed towards the ruling BJP, many are concluding that the party should be very worried for its future. But is this really the case? We believe that the answer lies in past events and equations in Gujarat. The following 10 factors hold the answer to the implications of the movement.

Factor 1: Until the 80s Patidars were no match for KHAM alliance

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The 1980s were troubled times for Gujarat, with periodic communal violence, attempts at introducing militant trade unionism and a distinct lack of long-term vision. The Indian National Congress had quilted together a formidable electoral alliance called KHAM -- an abbreviation for Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim. This alliance orphaned the Patels (which once gave the Congress Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel) politically, the changing dynamics leaving them out in the cold. Realising that the quota system was crystallising politics along caste lines, the Patels launched an anti-reservation stir in the mid-80s to register their grievance. However, owing to their superior social status and prosperity the stir backfired. The KHAMs became more strongly allied to the Congress than ever, re-electing Madhav Singh Solanki as the chief minister of Gujarat.

Factor 2: In the 90s, BJP engineered KHAM takedown

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From the late 80s, BJP and RSS ideologues started firming up an alliance of the upper castes and OBCs to counter KHAM dominance. The strategy worked and catapulted the BJP to power through the 1990s. Under the changed circumstances, Patel strongman Keshubhai Patel emerged as the Gujarat face of the BJP. Backed by the old establishment he tried to steady the ship. However, challenges to his authority emerged from within. The new guard of the Gujarat BJP led by OBC leader Narendra Modi and Shankersingh Vaghela, a Kshatriya, were resistant to Keshubhai's leadership. As a result, Modi was despatched to northwest India as an RSS organiser while Vaghela found himself at the centre of a rebellion that led him to break his association with the BJP. Vaghela's departure further polarised the Kshatriya votes towards the Congress, and Modi's exile weakened the BJP's hold over OBC votes.

Factor 3: Post Modi, KHAM equation disintegrated

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In 2001, Narendra Modi was recalled by the BJP to Gujarat and handed over the reins of the floundering ship. This proved to be the proverbial last straw for Patels. Their leader was humiliated and their hard-fought new perch in Gujarat polity was suddenly under threat by the new kid on the block.

Meanwhile, Modi moved rapidly to change political equations in the state. Well aware of Patel discontent, he wove a new winning combination in Gujarat. He aligned the upper castes, OBCs and Adivasi voters to create a hitherto undefeated political formula. The current Patel stir is to be observed in this light -- for far too long the demographic alliances behind the Congress and the BJP have remained static within Gujarat.

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Source: Cvoter/TimesNow/IndiaTV Exit Poll: 2012

Factor 4: The seemingly unshakeable Modi equation

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The Patels launched more than one attempt to combat Modi electorally. During the 2007 elections, Keshubhai Patel tried to galvanise farmers against Modi, and in 2012 he went a step further by launching the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP). The GPP in 2012 polled a grand total of 4% votes in the state, which amounted to nothing essentially given the 48% polled by the BJP and 39% by the Congress.

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Source: Cvoter/TimesNow/IndiaTV Exit Poll: 2012

Factor 5: The counter-movement to Patel surge

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Source: Cvoter/TimesNow/IndiaTV Exit Poll: 2012

BJP strategists draw comfort from two mitigating factors. The first is that a Patel surge is likely to be accompanied by a counter-movement of disaffected communities in the opposite direction. More specifically, a polarisation of Patels against the BJP will threaten the legacy votes for the Congress in Harijan and Kshatriya demographics. Second, voters who prioritise regional fidelity are unlikely to support a Patel leader and movement that are endorsed by out-of-state politicians like Nitish Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal and Lalu Prasad.

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Source: Cvoter/TimesNow/IndiaTV Exit Poll: 2012

Factor 6: Patel factions and the BJP

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Source: Cvoter/TimesNow/IndiaTV Exit Poll: 2012 & Exit Poll 2014

Those who know Gujarat also know that there has always been a sharp political divide between Kadva Patels and Leva Patels. Traditionally the Kadva Patels have been loyal to the BJP, while the Leva Patels did try to dent the BJP's vote-share (in the form of Keshubhai Patel's GPP) in the 2012 state polls. However, the Patidar Andolan has for the first time brought together the warring factions of the Patel community. Having said that, it must be underlined that this unification was observed even during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections which eventually converted into a 26-0 sweep for the BJP. This was a high point for the party's equation with the larger Patel community.

Factor 7: Could Leva Patels still shake BJP's stronghold?

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Source: Cvoter/TimesNow/IndiaTV Exit Poll: 2012 & Exit Poll 2014

While the GPP did manage to dent the BJP in more than 15 seats in 2012, this is not a convincing enough case for commentators who are predicting doom and gloom for the ruling party in Gujarat. There isn't enough evidence to conclude that all Patels will turn anti-BJP overnight. The damage that can be wrought is limited in scope. All in all, the Keshubhai Patel factor poke some holes in the BJP's vote-share in the Saurashtra region, but that was more than compensated for by the BJP sweep in the urban centres of Gujarat. For every vote lost, there were others gained for the BJP.

Factor 8: KHAM and Patidars will never join hands

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A section of Patels and the old guard of the BJP/RSS that were marginalised by Narendra Modi are seeking to claw their way back into relevance in the state. Leaders like Keshubhai Patel, Gordhan Zadafia, Sanjay Joshi and Praveen Togadia do wield organisational muscle and this when coupled with the money power of the Patels enabled a public show of strength. Also, one has to factor in the recession in Surat's diamond trade, and the consequent unemployment. The diamond lobby, dominated by Patels, initially supported Hardik Patel and PAAS but later developed fissures owing to the strident anti-BJP line taken up by those at the top. Thus, any realistic political analysis of today's Gujarat should factor in the divergent opinions within the Patel community.

The goings-on in Gujarat also carry a sub-plot of intra-BJP intrigue. It is well known that during his chief ministership Narendra Modi ran his administration with the help of Amit Shah on the political side and with Anandiben Patel playing an important role in governance. The relationship between the two is one of mutual ambivalence since they have been equals and competitors for influence within Gujarat. An administrative fiasco such as the current Patel andolan is an embarrassment for Anandiben and raises questions on her claims to inheriting the Patel mantle within the BJP.

Factor 9: So is Patidar + Muslim a winning combination?

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This seems highly unlikely. Simply because what we are looking at is the odd possibility of two polarisations taking place together at the same time. First, communal polarisation has affected state politics since well before the 2002 riots, dating to the Ayodhya Rath Yatra days when Advani single-handedly managed to create a foothold for the BJP in Gujarat. Now add to this a super polarisation on caste lines and what you get is unprecedented mayhem. The KHAM alliance has already been broken down to HAM, and a further splintering of SC/ST votes would truly finish off the age-old equation. The Patidars have already managed to counter-polarise the OBC caste groups enjoying the fruits of reservation. If BJP holds its ground, then this acute polarisation would be complete.

Factor 10: Gujarat remains a communally polarised state

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Source: Cvoter/TimesNow/IndiaTV Exit Poll: 2012

The recent political events in Gujarat prompt the following political conclusions: the BJP in Gujarat is not losing ground politically. At best, the vote-share can suffer minor damage as it did in the 2012 polls, and that too id there's a complete Patel polarisation against the BJP. The Congress is in a Catch 22 situation as any further polarisation of Patels against the will definitely result in counter-polarisation by other groups - this will work to the BJP's advantage. The old guard of BJP/RSS found Anandiben Patel to be vulnerable and utilised their organizational might to land a few quick blows on her government. However the electoral utility of this mobilisation is highly suspect owing to the past failures of their campaign to dislodge Modi or the BJP in Gujarat.

Last but not least, the Patidar Andolan is the Tea Party moment in the right wing politics of Gujarat. Just as the Tea Party tries to create trouble for the Republicans yet never votes for the Democrats, the Patidar movement functions under the hidden guidance of anti-Modi right wingers trying to consolidate a position for themselves in state politics. There is nothing to point towards a movement towards the secular lobby in the state. There is hardly anything to suggest that the Patidar movement will "normalise" the communally polarised state just because it's targeting the right wing government there. Gujarat is far from becoming a "normal" state anytime soon. Ultra-right in the name of Patidars is the new normal at the moment.

Does that mean there is no scope left for the Congress whatsoever? Well, politics is the game of making the impossible possible. Who would have ever thought that an RSS pracharak Shankersingh Vaghela could become the face of the Congress in the state? A Kshatriya leader like him could very well knit the HAM back to KHAM someday. Who would have thought that the Congress would represent "soft" Hindutva rather than aggressive secularism? Vaghela does enjoy a personal rapport within his alma mater and all the old guards could very well support him personally, even if not for Congress. Note also that the Congress has managed to win many local bodies in the last 20 years, even under Modi. This is not like the Congress meltdown that we are currently witnessing at the moment in MP or Rajasthan. It's an uphill task for sure, but to write off Shankersinh Vaghela would be to court embarrassment if the tide turns.

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