Latest media reports suggest that the BJP top leadership has decided to replace Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel who was earlier handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to replace him in the state. If the BJP were to, in fact, move in that direction, it would be to salvage the situation in Gujarat arising out of the Patel agitation.
Clearly, the central leadership doesn’t want to take chances following the BJP’s poor performance in the panchayat elections and the inroads made by the Congress even in urban areas. Any loss in the state at this juncture would be a huge setback for both Modi and party chief Amit Shah and will likely draw significant criticism from elders in the BJP.
Patels account for 16 percent of the state’s population and have been at odds with the BJP government, demanding reservation in government jobs. Historically, they have been the backbone of the BJP’s voter base, with 60-70 percent of Patels having voted for the party for the past two decades.
This accounts for one-fifth of the BJP’s vote share in Gujarat. The strong action against Hardik Patel, who has now been in jail for over 200 days, has not gone down well with the community and a section of it appears determined to teach the BJP a lesson.
The Patidar agitation is rooted around the fact that rural Gujarat has had three (2012, 2014 and 2015) bad years, over the last four, due to poor rainfall. This was aggravated by the fact that only 41 percent of Gujarat’s agricultural land is irrigated. Secondly, the gap between rural and urban Gujarat has rapidly increased during the last 10 years because of high growth in the manufacturing and services sectors. For example, between 2005 and 2013, overall GDP (constant prices) may have grown 110 percent while agricultural GDP grew only 53 percent.
Given that the 2014 and 2015 monsoons failed, the gap is likely to have gone up even further. Of the 23.9 million people above the age of 15 in rural Gujarat, 50.2 percent are either illiterate or had education below the primary level. The increasing income gap between rural and urban Gujarat, inconsistency in incomes (due to low irrigation and poor monsoons), lack of basic education and skills and a government that has been in power for a long time fanned the agitation. The belief amongst Patidars is that reservations will open up several avenues for them, either in jobs or education.
The BJP has maintained a lead of about 10 percent in the last five elections. If 50 percent of the disgruntled Patel community voters switch sides, the overall vote share of the BJP and the Congress will be at levels shown in Graph 2. This is what is giving the BJP central leadership sleepless nights.
The strategy followed by Anandiben (a Patidar herself) to quell the movement ranged from empty promises to strong action, before her government relented and declared 10 percent reservation for the economically backward section (earning less than Rs 6 lakh annually). With elections just a year-and-a-half away, this may be too little too late. That she was also seen getting close to Sanjay Joshi may have been the proverbial last straw for the BJP leadership.
Twenty years is enough time for anti-incumbency to set in, despite good performance. And since the state has witnessed bipolar contests for decades, any loss for the BJP is gain for the Congress.
The implication of a BJP loss is massive. Not only would it be a loss of face for Modi-Shah, the knives would be out in the party to clip Shah’s, if not Modi’s wings. Shah’s continuance as as BJP chief would depend on how well the party performs in UP. The most significant fallout will be a confidence boost for anti-Modi forces. Three BJP-ruled states – Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh (15 years) and Rajasthan – will be up for grabs in 2018 if the BJP loses Gujarat.
This could well mean an erosion of 10-12 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. There could also be some impact on four Rajya Sabha seats in 2018.
The only saving grace for the party is that the increasing likelihood of La Nina could mean that Gujarat might get decent monsoons in 2016 and 2017. This could somewhat reduce the anti-incumbency effect. Besides, the Congress is yet to prove that it has the leadership and the cadre to convert sentiment to votes.
Gujarat is strategic and central to the BJP’s consolidation in national politics. The PM and the party chief are from the state. But Modi and Shah should not take the state’s voters for granted especially when winning elections will not be as easy as before. Playing the Gujarati asmita card may not work all the time.