There are few people in Gujarat who know Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as his friend-turned-foe, former chief minister and now leader of opposition in the assembly, Shankersinh Vaghela.
Asked what has changed ever since Modi shifted to Delhi, Congress’ Vaghela told HT, “There was a camouflage as long as he was here. That is off now, people can see the gaps. There was also fear because of snooping, now that fear is over. They are fighting amongst themselves.” This means, Vaghela argues, 2017 represents the best possible chance for the opposition.
But the opposition itself is divided into three strands – a faction-ridden Congress; Hardik Patel, the face of the Patel dissent; Alpesh Thakor, a relatively minor leader, who claims to speak for the OBCs. Even if they unite, they will continue to face the mighty challenge of taking on Modi on his home turf.
In all this, the game-changer has undoubtedly been Hardik Patel. However, the extent of how much he has disrupted the game will be known only during the elections.
In 2015, Patel became the face of an agitation seeking reservations for Patidars, a dominant caste and one of the most important backers of the BJP in Gujarat. The government failed to anticipate the anger and then used force, alienating the community further. Patel now has a one-point agenda.
“Revenge. We have to take revenge and oust the BJP government,” he told HT. And would he go with the Congress? “I will not join the Congress. Having that symbol is suicide… But I will give all my votes to Congress because that is the only way to defeat BJP,” says Patel, categorically outlining his support for the party. It was this support that helped Congress win a majority of the local bodies right after the agitation, he claims.
Alpesh Thakor came into prominence while opposing the Patidar agitation.
He heads the Kshatriya Thakor Sena. “There are 146 OBC castes here. But they are small, educationally backward, predominantly in rural pockets, and so no one speaks for them.” If Patels have primarily been BJP supporters, Thakors have been with Congress.
Thakor has been active in a movement to strengthen prohibition laws – a demand the government accepted; and supported agitations of government employees on contract.
He acknowledges that the Patel agitation showed the way for less powerful groups like his to take on the government.
Thakor says he is negotiating with both parties – whichever ‘meets his agenda’, euphemism for greater share in seats, will win his support.
Whether the Congress is able to revive itself, get over its own divisions, bring these separate strands together, and mount a challenge to the Modi juggernaut remains to be seen.
Vaghela says, “For Modi, it is only Hindu-Muslim. But this Hindutva card is not working anymore. Patels are now shaken. They were the party’s strongest ideological and financial supporters.”
Shaktisinh Gohil, another party leader, says that the Congress is relying on its old formula of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims – with the addition of Patels and the middle-class this time for the upcoming polls.
“Till Modi was around, there was a perception of no corruption even though the government was still as corrupt. But that has shattered now. There is anti-incumbency among many segments,” says Gohil.
But all of this seems far-fetched to local political analyst Japan Pathak.
He says, “Gujaratis have voted for the Congress of Sardar, Congress which is centre-right. Currently, it is seen as left, pro-Muslim, anti-industry. Gujarat has also voted for stability and changed governments rarely. In power for so long, BJP has also obliged a very large section of voters. It will be difficult for Congress.”
The Congress has not had a chief minister of its own for 22 years. And finally, this remains the state of Narendra Modi.
“This is the home turf of the PM. The prestige of both guru and shishya is at stake. So they will use all means,” admits Vaghela. The opposition has its task cut out in a Gujarat that is post-Modi, yet defined by Modi.