Tuesday, December 25, 2012

In Saurashtra, the Patels might make Modi sweat a little

Diptosh Majumdar l Rajkot
Expect the garrulous Navjyot Singh Sidhu to score a suicide goal and alienate the electorally crucial Leuva Patels on the eve of the polls.
Taking a break from cricket commentary, Sidhu was campaigning for the BJP in Gujarat 10 days ago and targeted the 84-year-old former chief minister Keshubhai Patel in a no-holds-barred attack. And he lashed out at Keshubhai for having left the BJP as though it was the worst betrayal possible. He called Keshubhai an anti-national, proclaimed that voting in his favour would be akin to consuming beef and then even called him a “used cartridge”.
The Leuva Patels -- their 12% vote matter across Gujarat and, more so, in Saurashtra -- are visibly upset. Keshubhai's supporters say that the reference to beef definitely hurt the sentiments of the religious Gujarati. For the ailing veteran, this could well be his last election. He may indeed be a spent force but there is no denying that he has significant pockets of influence.
His supporters, including a few RSS pracharaks, have complained to the election commission about Sidhu's “uncivilised” remarks against the Gujarat Parivartan Party leader. In Saurashtra, where more than anywhere else, caste considerations will overshadow the ruling party's emphasis on development, it does not augur well for Narendra Modi.
Keshubhai Patel had been sulking even during the 2002 and 2007 polls. But he had not stepped out in the open and formed his own party to take his antagonism towards Modi to another level.

This time, he has floated the GPP. And in his home turf in Saurashtra, he is definitely of some political relevance and wields significant influence. As far as votes go, he may not upstage the BJP but he may well play a spoiler. Not all poll pundits are convinced that Keshubhai will only hurt the BJP.
“It is difficult to say. He may end up damaging both sides by taking an impressive share of the anti-Modi opposition vote. So, the Congress too may take a beating,” said senior Gujarati journalist Kaushikbhai Mehta in Rajkot.
Most analysts and even the level-headed Patels themselves do not over-romanticise Keshubhai's latest foray into electoral politics.
“His time is over. He may do some damage but he is not going to take the crown away from Modi,” say the elderly in Rajkot. “Three to four seats for the GPP at best,” they say with a degree of finality.
Haresh Jhala, professor of Sociology in Saurashtra University, thinks otherwise. He believes that Modi's tally will come down sharply in drought-prone Saurashtra. “I won't be surprised if Modi wins less than 25 seats from this region. The voters here have a lot of complaints piling up. Modi has not addressed any of those.”
No doubt, Modi has worries in Saurasthra because the really influential Leuva Patel leader, Naresh Patel, has come forward to strengthen Keshubhai's hands. Naresh Patel is building the Khodal temple at Kagvad in Rajkot district and his appeal for money raised close to a Rs100 crore from among Leuvas in a matter of months. His rally in Surat in the middle of the campaign was extremely well-attended.
Naresh Patel has demanded that Leuvas transfer their votes to their fellow caste leader Keshubhai. And there is an accompanying suggestion that if the GPP candidate is not strong enough the Leuvas may even vote for the Congress.
There is also the increasing fear among Leuvas that Modi is not really concerned about them. Not many Leuva leaders are thriving under Modi's regime. Modi is not granting the ambitious community the power and the political space it deserves.
The Leuva Patels are also keeping a close watch on the growing influence of the Kolis -- a community of OBCs which is prospering now and which has begun to harbour political ambitions.
The Leuvas feel if the Kolis -- who are numerically more powerful comprising 20% of the population in Saurashtra -- begin to assert themselves, they might lose out and the friction between the two large caste groups might erode their power-base.
In 2007, Modi won 43 of the 59 seats in Saurashtra and Kutch taken together. This time, after delimitation, the total number of seats in these two regions has come down to 54. It is certain that Modi will not repeat the same stellar performance. His tally is going to fall dramatically by 10 to 12 seats, forcing him to try and pick up more seats from other regions.
Given the political complications, Modi is not exactly on a friendly turf in Saurashtra. This is the region in Gujarat, which might damage his fortunes the maximum. Saurasthra may shatter Narendra Modi's dream to increase his tally from last time's 117 to an unassailable 125 and beyond.