The first response to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s recent call at Udaipur for the revitalising of her party, was the resignation of Hardik Patel, president of the party’s Gujarat unit. It was an unwelcome turn of events for the Congress, which is gearing up for assembly elections scheduled to be held in Gujarat in December 2022.
Speculation was immediately rife on whether Patel would join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the very party he had risen to prominence by opposing, on the issue of reservations for his Patidar community. Heavy commentary also rose in tandem, on how Patel’s exit would hurt the Congress, or aid the BJP (if he joined it).
The truth, however, is more prosaic: whether Patel had stayed on with the Congress, or if he joins the BJP, the forecast outcome with the highest probability for the December 2022 Gujarat assembly elections remains the same: a thumping victory for the BJP.
The reason is that, while the BJP did, admittedly, get a nasty surprise in 2017 from crude, egregious caste-bank politics (which they thought they had exorcised from the state), the party has learnt from that incident, executed the necessary corrections, and revamped its approach, to be battle-ready for the forthcoming polls.
Patel was one of a brash trio put up by the Congress between 2015 and 2017, to split the BJP’s vote on caste lines in Gujarat, and raise the Congress party’s chances of victory. Jignesh Mewani was tasked to target the Dalit vote by using the victimhood line, Alpesh Thakor, the OBCs, and Patel, the Patidar vote.
The timing was also opportune for the Congress: the BJP in Gujarat had yet to find its feet after Narendra Modi demitted the Chief Minister’s office, and left for Delhi in May 2014. Anandiben Patel, who replaced Modi, failed to make the cut and had to be eased out in 2016.
Her successor, the soft-spoken Vijay Rupani, took control of the administration in record time, but, it did little to reconsolidate the Patel vote, which had begun to waver by then, partly under Patel’s caste-based onslaught against the BJP.
Consequently, real worries rose within the community, on whether they would be able to keep their traditional seat at the high table of power. These worries were only compounded by the BJP’s inability to satisfactorily, and demonstrably, fill the yawning vacuum left behind by Modi’s shift to Delhi. Patels weren’t too sure which way the BJP was headed in Gujarat, and to some, the Congress suddenly didn’t seem so bad after all.
As a result, the 2017 assembly elections in Gujarat were an oddity. While the BJP won again, and its vote share increased slightly from 2012 to a record 49 per cent, its seat tally fell from 115 to 99 in a house of 182. The Congress, though 8 per cent behind on vote share, managed to increase its seat tally from 61 to 77.
In over two dozen seats, the margin of victory was less than 3,000 votes, which means that if the Congress had won just half a per cent more in a dozen-odd seats, the result would have been a startling anachronism, with the Congress winning by a much lower vote share.
The reason for this unique situation is that the BJP’s overall vote share was high because it performed exceedingly well in urban areas, getting over 60-70 per cent of the vote in many urban areas, while the margins were wafer thin in a number of rural seats.
This discrepancy is what the Congress targeted through its Mewani-Thakor-Patel trio, and it nearly worked. Big names like Bhupendra Chudasma and Saurabh Patel of the BJP barely managed to scrape through with win margins of less than a thousand votes.
But that was then. Today, the situation is different.
Alpesh Thakor won in 2017 from Radhanpur on a Congress ticket, but resigned within two years when he was wooed away by the BJP. He lost the resultant by-election and has been sidelined; hardly a peep is heard from him these days.
Jignesh Mewani won from Vadgam reserved seat in 2017 as a Congress-supported independent. But since then, he has revealed his true colours and swung hard to the left. Mewani was involved in the Bhima Koregaon case of 2018 in Maharashtra, where violence broke out, and a number of cases are pending against him. He also alienated himself from many Gujaratis by abusing Narendra Modi in the vilest possible terms.
In the process, he has become such a darling of the extreme Left, that association with the Congress now hurts the party. Further, Mewani originally made his name and fame by raking up an alleged incident of anti-Dalit atrocity in Una, in south Saurashtra. While Mewani’s efforts there may have had some impact in the run up to the 2017 elections, the situation in Una is very different now: the BJP won every single ward in Una, in the last local body polls held there.
Hardik Patel was too young to contest elections in 2017. The next year, he was found guilty of rioting, arson, damage to property and unlawful assembly in a 2015 case, convicted, and sentenced to two years imprisonment. While the Supreme Court has stayed his conviction, and Patel roams free, his eligibility to contest elections, and by that, his utility and public image, lie under a cloud.
The bottom line is that the repulsive caste upheaval the Congress sought to instigate in Gujarat may have paid the party some dividends in 2017. But it also woke the state up to the horrors of vote banking — a Congress tactic which held the state’s politics hostage for decades, until the advent of the BJP in the mid-1990s.
Since then, Gujaratis had made a virtue of rising above caste at the ballot box, and of ensuring that such reprehensible, divisive practices found no place in their polity. 2017 thus served as a timely reminder, of the perils of letting such malign influences return to stalk the state.
And finally, once Vijay Rupani made way for Bhupendrabahi Patel in September 2021, the Patel lobby appears suitably mollified, the BJP has managed to close its ranks, and, the majestic supra-caste consolidation they fashioned in the 1990s appear to be intact once more.
Therefore, Hardik Patel’s departure from the Congress hurts that party more, than it may benefit the BJP in any decisive way. As a result, the highest probability is for another BJP win in 2022 December, with or without Hardik Patel in its ranks.
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