Five years after the Patidar agitation propelled the Congress to electoral success in the Saurashtra-Kutch region during the 2017 Assembly polls in Gujarat, bagging 30 seats against 23 for the BJP, the party finds itself back on the brink in the region. The agitation is out of the equation now and the Congress has been discredited, with its leaders switching midway to the BJP, including the Patidar poster boy Hardik Patel.
The Tankara Assembly constituency near Morbi is a case in point. The Patidar anger swung the seat in favour of the Congress in 2017, a first for the party in 50 years. Congress leader Lalitbhai Kagathara got a whopping 56% of the votes polled. The political situation has been flipped on its head now, with the Congress once again thrown out of favour.
Brothers Ramesh Bhai Bhagya and Ashwin Bhagya are standing next to their fields in Tankara where they are harvesting peanuts, lamenting the rising costs of farm inputs, the removal of fertiliser subsidies, and the withdrawal of crop insurance. They complain about the lack of irrigation facilities and the erratic supply of electricity for farmer to run water pumps. But this long list of grievances is unlikely to influence their choice at the ballot box. “We voted for the Congress only because we wanted to teach the BJP a lesson. But clearly, it was a mistake. When you have a Congress MLA, but a BJP government in Ahmedabad and Delhi, no welfare projects come your way,” the brothers said.
Can the AAP be the alternative to Congress then? It is an emphatic no from them. Nagjibhai Hirabhai Patel, who is listening to the whole discussion, succinctly captures the sentiment. “ Keshubhai nahi chala toh Kejriwal kahan chalega? (How will Kejriwal succeed where Keshubhai could not?)” he says, referencing Keshubhai Patel, a former Chief Minister who launched his Gujarat Parivartan Party in 2012. The party snagged only two seats in the next Assembly polls, forcing him to return to the BJP, subsuming his party.
The Congress has not been able to consolidate its gains because at least nine of its MLAs from the Saurashtra-Kutch region shifted to the BJP in the middle of their tenure in the Assembly, while another left the party just days before the elections. At least three of these were Patel leaders.
Jayesh Patel is a Village Computer Entrepreneur (VCE) in Morjar village in the Dhari constituency. The VCEs work on a commission basis and in May this year, Mr. Patel was part of the agitation against the BJP administration demanding fixed pay instead of their current piecemeal wages. The operators’ demands have not been met and Mr. Patel is concerned about the rising living costs, but still does not see the Congress as a credible alternative. “What is the point of voting for the Congress, when their MLAs are up for sale?” he asked. The Congress MLA for Dhari, J.V. Kakadiya, was among those who switched to the BJP midway through their tenure.
This distrust among voters could impact the electoral outcome, admits the Congress party in-charge for Saurashtra Ramkishan Ojha. However, he believes that the situation hasn’t altered drastically from 2017. “There is a deep undercurrent against the BJP because of inflation and the high rate of unemployment. The bare fact is that all the big infrastructure that one sees here in Saurashtra was built under the Congress governments in the Centre and the State. The BJP has always meted out step-fatherly treatment to the region,” Mr. Ojha told The Hindu.
These factors on top of the mind for most of the voters here, but it remains uncertain whether it will be enough to swing the vote in favour of the Congress. The party is also seen as an ineffective challenger because of its almost silent campaign in this election, in stark contrast to high voltage campaigns from both the BJP and the AAP.
By their own estimates, the Congress had cornered 47% of Patel votes in the region in the last elections. The party is not taking the Patel community lightly this time round; it has fielded 15 Patel candidates in the region, the same number as in the last assembly elections.
The Gondal constituency provides a good example of the fact that although voter fatigue has been building against the BJP, the Congress has failed to cash in. The BJP managed to hold on to the seat even in the 2017 wave against them, but disgruntled voters still heap the blame on the Congress.
“The Congress never puts up a strong challenger here. The BJP’s writ runs here literally at gunpoint. There are at least thirty villages here, where whether you cast the vote or not before the polling closes, someone else will cast it on your behalf for the BJP,” said Nikunj Vithalbhai Chuathani, a Leuva Patel in Gondal’s Vachara village, revealing deep dissatisfaction with the BJP as well as the inevitability of its success.