Rebellion in Gujarat.

Gujarat BJP is facing rebellion; its ‘winnability’ formula partly to blame

BJP list excludes many sitting MLAs, includes many ‘fresh faces’ and Congress turncoats

Prashun Bhaumik | Ahmedabad | 19 November, 2022 | 10:50 PM

There’s nothing new about leaders becoming irate when denied a ticket to contest elections, but never before has the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faced the prospect of a such a large-scale revolt in Gujarat, which will go to the polls on 1 and 5 December.

The general trend in Gujarat, where the BJP is hoping to register its seventh consecutive win, has been for party leaders to accept the high command’s decisions without much question. It is, after all, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah. But this time, there are signs of rebellion brewing in at least 12 seats.

Trouble began soon after the party released its first two lists of candidates — 166 out of 182 — earlier this month. Forty-two sitting MLAs had been denied tickets, including five ministers from Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel’s cabinet as well as assembly Speaker Nimaben Acharya. Further, the approved candidates included several Congress turncoats.

By Wednesday, the last date to file nominations for the first phase of the election, the ripple of discontent had turned into full-fledged protest at the state BJP office, Shri Kamalam, in Gandhinagar. Disgruntled cadres gathered at the location and voiced their objections over some of the candidate choices. Angry workers from Surat, too, had shouted slogans here Tuesday after the sitting MLA for Choryasi constituency in the district was bypassed.

While the party’s rationale for its pick of candidates has been “winnability” above all, some of those who were deemed as not possessing that quality have gone on to file their nominations as Independent candidates.

These include six-time Waghodia MLA Madhu Srivastava — who told ThePrint that the BJP had “sacrificed” him — and tribal leader Harshad Vasava, who will be contesting from the Nandod (ST) seat, formerly known as Rajpipla. Vasava has been a two-time MLA from here.

It’s all adding up to become a big thorn in the side of the BJP, which also faced a similar problem in Himachal Pradesh, where there were 21 rebels from the party in the fray when the state voted last Saturday.

Now the party is in damage control mode in Gujarat. While state minister Harsh Sanghavi was dispatched last week to Vadodara, where there are several pockets of rebellion, he did not make much headway. Home Minister Amit Shah, too, arrived in Gandhinagar earlier this week and has been reportedly trying to calm down angry leaders, but whether his outreach efforts will work remains to be seen.

In Himachal, even a phone call from the prime minister was not enough to pacify former MP Kirpal Parmar, who ended up contesting as an Independent.

While office-bearers of the Gujarat BJP state unit have taken the line that the situation has not yet reached alarming levels, other leaders point at deeper issues such as a lack of strong leadership and a “culture” of importing Congress candidates and giving them tickets because of their “winnability”. Experts also claim that caste identity politics could be contributing to unrest within the party.

Here’s a look at some high-profile rebellions, how the party is trying to tackle them, and what political observers believe could be the reasons behind the normally disciplined Gujarat cadres making a hue and cry.

Turmoil in Vadodara

The district where peeved leaders have turned up the heat most is Vadodara. Very publicly on the warpath is sitting Waghodia MLA Madhu Srivastava, who was dropped in favour of district unit president Ashwin Patel.

A land developer, film actor, and reputed strongman, Srivastava has quit the party and declared that he will fight the elections independently.

“Some days back, a senior leader called me and said they wanted to field a Patidar leader. I come from a North Indian background and so they sacrificed me,” he told ThePrint. “Now the people who made me MLA are pressuring me to fight elections.”

There’s some reason for the BJP to be nervous. Srivastava has been MLA from Waghodia since 1995, when he won as an Independent candidate. He and other Independents also played a part in bringing down the Suresh Mehta-led BJP government in 1996.

“Back then, senior leaders of the BJP requested me to join the party and I stayed with them. I have a good relationship with PM Modi, but workers are angry with this decision. I will fight, I am a mard ka bachha (son of a man).”

Srivastava refused to meet state minister Harsh Sanghavi, who had been dispatched to Vadodara by the high command to soothe rebels.

Other aggrieved Vadodara leaders who didn’t turn up for a damage-control meeting with Sanghavi and his fellow emissary, state BJP general secretary Bhargav Bhatt, were Dinesh ‘Dinu Mama’ Patel and Satish Nishaliya, former MLAs for Padra and Karjan respectively.

Dinesh Patel, the chairman of Baroda Dairy, has declared that he will fight as an Independent from Padra. He has said he was upset that the BJP had chosen Padra municipality corporator Chaitanya Singh Zala, a long-time bête noire.

BJP Vadodara city president Vijay Bhai Shah said the party had chosen Zala as it wanted a Rajput candidate. However, he acknowledged that Dinu Mama had money and plenty of cadre support going for him.

“He may get more Patel votes and make a dent as the other candidates (from AAP and Congress) are also Rajputs,” he added.

In Karjan, the BJP gave its ticket to sitting MLA Akshay Patel, who defected from the Congress in 2020. In the 2017 election from the constituency, he had defeated the BJP’s Satish Patel, who is now upset that the party has picked a “Congress import” over him.

“The party cadres are angry with the growing culture of importing Congress candidates,” Satish Patel told ThePrint. “This time they will teach (the BJP) a lesson”.

Allegations of ‘betrayal’

In Narmada district, former MLA Harshad Vasava quit his post as BJP Scheduled Tribe Morcha president and filed his nomination as an independent candidate from Nandod assembly constituency, where the sitting MLA is from the Congress. Vasava was elected as MLA from here in 2002 and then again in 2007.

Given that the Statue of Unity is located here, Nandod represents a prestige battle for the BJP, which is fielding Dr Darshana Deshmukh, daughter of the late former MP Chandu Deshmukh.

“The party has overlooked a committed worker who gave his life to it and strengthened it in tribal areas… the BJP betrayed me,” Vasava told ThePrint.

The party’s Narmada district president, Ghanshyambhai Patel, said the allegation of betrayal was unwarranted since Vasava had been given plenty of importance in the party. “It’s not feasible for everyone to get a ticket,” he said.

But this refrain is not cutting any ice with leaders who were passed over for party tickets.

In Saurashtra, former MLA Arvind Ladani has quit the party after he failed to get a ticket from the Keshod seat, where he was last elected in 2012. He has announced he will contest as an Independent.

There has also been much heartburn over the dropping of Zankhana Patel, the sitting MLA for the Choryasi constituency in Surat. She had won the 2017 assembly election with a margin of over 1.10 lakh votes, second only to Bhupendra Patel, who won by 1.17 lakh votes and is now CM. Her supporters created a ruckus at the BJP’s Gandhinagar office Tuesday.

Home minister Amit Shah seems to have been tasked with firefighting amidst this churn. He held meetings this week at the BJP headquarters with peeved leaders, including cabinet minister and Raopura MLA Rajendra Trivedi, who had also been divested of the key revenue portfolio earlier this year.

The ‘winnability’ debate

The BJP state unit has maintained that the rebellions in Gujarat are nothing to worry about. “More than 4,000 people applied for a ticket, but the party can’t give it to everyone. Naturally, there is some resentment, but they know that the BJP is the only party where they have a future, so they will eventually be pacified,” said Jayantibhai Kavadiya, state BJP vice-president.

Another state party VP, Mahendrabhai S. Patel, told ThePrint that “winnability” topped other considerations and that it was important to groom new faces.

“Some of the leaders have been fighting elections for the last 40 years. How will young leaders emerge if the elders are not retired?” he said.

However, other state leaders believe that considerations of “winnability” have negatively impacted the culture of the party, especially in instances where recent Congress turncoats have been given tickets.

“In five years, about 20 Congress MLAs quit their party and came to the BJP. Then they won bypolls (to retain their seats), and now most of them have got tickets. This is a major reason cadres are so angry— that imported candidates got tickets,” a senior Gujarat BJP leader told ThePrint.

“In power politics, winnability is only criterion while selecting candidates, but this impacts the party and workers. Those who work for the party 365 days a year are overlooked at the time of ticket distribution for outsiders. This has created unrest in many places,” he added.

Instances of this trend include the BJP giving a ticket to Rajendrasinh Rathwa, the son of veteran tribal leader and Chhota Udepur MLA Mohansinh Rathwa. The elder Rathwa quit the Congress and joined the BJP just this month and was able to get a ticket for his son.

Then there is the case of Talala MLA Bhaga Barad, a prominent Ahir leader. He quit the Congress and joined the BJP on 9 November, and got a ticket within three days.

‘No guiding light’, caste factor

A former Gujarat BJP MP pinned the ongoing churn in the party to the lack of a “guiding light” in the state, which has seen three chief ministers since Modi demitted the seat and became PM in 2014.

“The only glue is the share of power and when this becomes uncertain, there are rebellions,” he said. He recalled that when leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani urged everyone to work for the party rather than self-interest, people would listen, but such speeches from current leaders seemed “hollow”.

Gaurang Jani, professor of sociology at Gujarat University, agrees with this. According to him, the unceremonious ousting in September last year of then CM Vijay Rupani and his cabinet has had some unintended consequences.

“The BJP changed CM Rupani in a day. Neither MLAs nor ministers are sure about their political future. They feel that the BJP is playing power politics and compromising its ideals by bringing in turncoats. MLAs now don’t want to sacrifice their seats for the party,” Jani said.

Caste was another factor, he added, behind the “resentment and impatience” of some BJP leaders.

While the BJP was trying to unite castes under the “Hindutva umbrella”, he said, it had at the same time also tried to “groom caste leaders in every pocket”, keeping votes in mind.

“These caste leaders, whether they are Ahir or Koli, are now fighting for their share in politics, but the BJP cannot give tickets to every leader, so the party is facing heat in every pocket,” Jani said.

Courtesy The Print