It’s not every day that you find a hardened BJP worker muttering under his breath that his party, which has been ruling Gujarat for the last 22 years, is on a sticky wicket. When you do find one, that too in Vadnagar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home town, it is indicative of the discontent in parts of the state, where the BJP is aiming at returning to power for a fifth consecutive term. Dikshit Patel, a long time BJP worker, is worried that the simmering anger of the Patidar community, upset over the violence in 2015 during the agitation for reservation, could brim over on election day, spelling trouble for the party. He is not the only one viewing the December 14 election with foreboding. The mood in the BJP camp in Mehsana district, which straddles seven constituencies, is tense. Mehsana and Vadnagar fall in Mehsana district, but while Vadnagar is under the Unjha constituency, Mehsana city (known as Mahesana in the list of the state election office) is a separate constituency. BJP workers are apprehensive that the Patidar rage could severely dent the party’s prospects. It all began in Mehsana, the epicentre of the Patidar agitation led by Patidar Amanat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) chief Hardik Patel, two years ago, they recall. The agitation for reservation took a violent turn, people were killed, Patidar leaders were jailed and the state was deaf to their demand for quota for the community. Today, the fire may have been doused but the embers still glow. “More than Hardik as an individual, it is the issue of Patidar reservation that has struck a chord with the Patels, especially the youth. Patels are the backbone of the BJP in Gujarat. We made the party what it is today so it is natural that if they desert our camp, the impact will be deep,” says Dikshit. Most BJP functionaries in the area, dominated by Patidars, belong to this community. But be it Dikshit in Vadnagar or Falgun Patel in Mehsana city, a fairly developed urban settlement, the anxiety is palpable. The party is trying to contain the potential damage in Unjha by playing up the fact that Narayanbhai Patel, the local MLA seeking a sixth-straight term, heads the Umiya Dham Temple, revered by the Patel community. He is up against the Congress’s Ashaben Patel.
The BJP has fielded Deputy Chief Minister Nitinbhai Patel against Jivabhai Patel of the Congress in Mahesana. Falgun Patel, who has been a corporator of the BJP in the local Mehsana municipality, also concedes that the contest is extremely tight because of the anger in the Patel community, which he says “cannot be bought”. He rattles off a set of figures to prove his point. “There are around 2.57 lakh voters in the Mahesana seat, out of which about 52,000 are Patidars. Among the Patidars, even considering the best possible scenario, not more than 18,000 shall vote for us. And Patels have been our strength,” Falgun says. He adds that the party is attempting to offset the Patel desertion by focusing more on OBC communities such as Thakores (around 40,000), Prajapatis (26,000 approx) and the Chaudharys (17,000 approx). “Thakore votes are usually reserved for the Congress. But this time, we are hoping the OBCs will tilt towards the BJP considering the Congress’s emphasis on wooing the Patidars by promising them reservation. The OBCs understand they stand to lose if the quotas materialise,” he explains. Not everyone is downcast, though. J K Bharot, 73, who runs a stationery shop off the Mehsana-Palanpur highway, is as optimistic as ever. “Like I was when A K Patel was elected in 1984. The Modi magic will work again,” he says, stressing repeatedly that the prime minister “is a great man”.
A K Patel was the first BJP leader elected to the Lok Sabha from the Mehsana parliamentary constituency. He held the seat till 1998, before Aatmaram Patel of the Congress took over and later, in 2004, Jivabhai Patel. Vitthal Bhai Choudhary, a local BJP worker, echoes Bharot and says Falgun’s assessment is needlessly pessimistic. A number of influential NRI Patels have arrived and are working overtime to win back the support of the disgruntled Patels, he says. Besides Unjha and Mahesana, the five other constituencies in the district are Kheralu, Visnagar and Becharaji, Kadi (reserved for SCs) and Vijapur. Other than Kadi and Vijapur, the rest are with the BJP. While the first polls were held on December 9, these constituencies will vote in the second phase on December 14. The results will be declared on December 18.