With Assembly elections in Gujarat due later this year, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Opposition Congress are leaving no stone unturned to ensure that they emerge victorious.
This will be the first time elections are being held in Gujarat without Narendra Modi guiding the BJP ship, and a defeat for the saffron party will add credence to the theories doing the rounds that the state unit of the party is a sinking ship without the prime minister at the helm of affairs. Meanwhile, the Congress, which has suffered a series of electoral setbacks in recent months, is targetting Gujarat as the state which will revive its fortunes.
While Modi has visited his home state on three separate occasions this last month, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has also been touring the state extensively, holding rallies and meeting potential allies.
On Monday, Rahul Gandhi is expected to begin a three-day visit to Gujarat, during which he is likely to meet OBC leader Alpesh Thakor. Congress had also extended an invitation to Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani to join the party. It has invited the two leaders to meet Gandhi on Monday in Ahmedabad. The party is trying to woo leaders such as Patel, Mevani and Thakor who have significant support base in their respective communities.
The Vaghela factor
By doing so, the Congress is trying to offset the damage caused by the defection of senior leader Shankersingh Vaghela, who quit the party in August. Vaghela, a former chief minister of Gujarat, resigned from the Congress party, which he had joined two decades ago after resigning from the BJP.
Vaghela, who was once seen as a possible chief ministerial candidate for the Congress, threw his weight behind a new front. His revolt triggered a political storm in poll-bound Gujarat, including the resignation of six of his supporters as members of the state Assembly. He later said the new front will not be a political party but an “alternative force” to garner public anger against the ruling BJP and the ineffective Congress.
But while he has decided to align with neither of the two major power centres in Gujarat, his defection will be more keenly felt by the Congress, which would have depended largely on Vaghela and his support as it tries to make an electoral comeback in the western state.
Congress seeks new allies
But while Vaghela resigned, Vasava joined. Chhotubhai Vasava, appointed state party chief by the JD(U) faction of Sharad Yadav, threw his weight behind Congress’ Ahmed Patel in August’s Rajya Sabha polls from Gujarat, and the party is expected to be part of a grand alliance being worked out by the Congress.
The six-time Gujarat MLA, who enjoys influence among tribals in parts of Gujarat, attacked the BJP, saying demonetisation and the GST have “destroyed” the economy. “We will ally with the Congress and also other parties like the Left. We will also try to have a tie-up with Hardik Patel,” he had said last month.
Apart from the JD(U), the party is also targeting Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani. And it can be reasonably confident of attracting OBC activist Alpesh Thakor, who has already announced his decision of joining the party. Thakor, the convenor of the Gujarat OBC Ekta Manch and leader of the local Thakor Sena, has considerable influence among the backward classes.
The party is also seeking the support of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leaders from Gujarat. Congress’ Gujarat chief Bharatsinh Solanki said senior AAP leader Kanubhai Kalsariya met Rahul Gandhi during the latter’s visit to the state early in October. “Just like Kalsariya, many other AAP leaders are in touch with us. They may join the Congress soon,” Solanki had claimed.
But while Thakor has readily joined the Congress, Hardik Patel has been more apprehensive about doing so. “I have said earlier too, that my fight is not for or against any political party, but against the system, against those who want to crush my democratic right to speak up for my rights,” he had said earlier. “If the BJP agrees to give what we are demanding, I will wrap up the agitation but not otherwise,” he said, adding that their agitation will continue even if the Congress comes to power.
However, with Rahul Gandhi set for a three-day tour of the state, and the party aggressively courting Patel’s support, it expects him to soften his stand.
On Sunday, Hardik Patel’s former aide Narendra Patel came up with a sensational revelation, saying the BJP was offering him Rs 1 crore to join the party. At a press conference in Ahmedabad, Patel displayed wads of notes said the party gave him Rs 10 lakh, and said another Rs 90 lakh would be given later. He also alleged that the deal was brokered by Varun Patel, a former leader of the Hardik Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS). “He (Varun Patel) told me that I will get Rs 1 crore. After meeting (state BJP chief Jitu) Vaghani at his house, I was taken to the state BJP headquarters on Sunday night where I was given Rs 10 lakh as advance by Varun. I was told that I will get the remaining Rs 90 lakh on Monday during a BJP function,” Patel alleged.
He said he followed Varun’s instruction and joined the BJP just to “expose” the party. “I can never betray my community. The BJP can’t buy me and my loyalty for the Patidar community,” he said.
Reacting to allegations, the BJP claimed it was a “drama” staged at the behest of the Congress. “All these allegations are false. It was a drama (enacted) by Narendra Patel at the behest of Congress. He voluntarily came to us to join the BJP and then took a U-turn within hours. It proves that everything was pre-planned,” Gujarat BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya said.
However, while the BJP claimed it wasn’t true, another rebel leader Nikhil Savani also quit the party on Monday morning, saying he was “dismayed” by the party using money to buy Opposition leaders. “I joined BJP because the government had done good things in the past. But the party is now offering money to people to join them. I am upset by these revelations,” Savani said on Monday.
Given the spate of resignations, defections and allegations, Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Gujarat acquires new significance. Who the Congress vice-president meets with and how things develop will probably determine which way the election swings.