Ahmedabad: For the ruling BJP in Gujarat, 89 seats of Saurashtra and South Gujarat regions, where polling is on in the first phase of Assembly elections, hold key to its hopes for forming the government for the seventh time.
The BJP suffered setbacks in these regions in the 2017 Assembly polls, dragging its total seats to 99 in the state. However, the Assembly poll then was fought in the background of Patidar quota agitation, which helped the Congress bag 77 seats, an improvement from its 2012 tally of 61 seats.
Saurashtra holds the key
The Saurashtra region accounts for 48 out of the total 182 Assembly seats. It has a sizable Patidar and Other Backward Class (OBC) population and the potential to tilt the power game in favour of or against the ruling BJP.
In the 2017 Assembly polls, the Congress bagged 28 of the 48 seats, against its previous election's tally of 15. Political observers attributed the Congress’s impressive show to the 2015 Patidar quota agitation that had targeted theBJP government and forced the ruling party to change its chief minister in Gujarat.
Anandiben Patel was then replaced by Vijay Rupani.
For the Congress, it will definitely be a challenge to keep its numbers in Saurasthra region intact, let alone improve it.
With no Patidar quota stir or any real issue in place this election, the BJP is pushing hard to regain its previous standing in the Saurashtra region.
Besides, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) also poses a hurdle to the Congress – which is quite strong in the rural areas – and the BJP which has urban and semi-urban areas under its wraps, observers said.
The BJP, which could win only 19 seats in Saurashtra in the 2017 elections as against 30 in 2012, is also desperate. It has managed to poach a number of Congress MLAs from the Saurashtra region.
The region comprises 11 districts - Surendranagar, Morbi, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Devbhumi Dwarka, Porbandar, Junagadh, Gir Somnath, Amreli, Bhavnagar and Botad. In the 2017 Assembly, the BJP had failed to open an account in three of these districts – Morbi, Gir Somnath and Amreli.
This year though, the Morbi bridge collapse on October 30 that killed 135 people could impact BJP’s prospects, said analysts. However, ground reports suggest that quick action by the state government in disbursing the compensation amount (within 48 hours of the incident) to the kin of the deceased followed by the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, may have placated the angry locals.
Though the Congress raked up the issue of Morbi bridge collapse during its elections rallies, eventually, the party gave up on it.
For the Congress, which has been out of power in Gujarat for more than two decades, it is important to sustain its 2017 performance in Saurashtra in order to regain the lost ground.
But this is not going to be easy for it given the fact that the 2015 Patidar quota agitation that united Patidars against the ruling BJP is missing this time.
Another blow for the Congress is that the face of Patidar agitation, Hardik Patel, who had joined the Congress in 2019 and was appointed its working president, quit the party earlier this year and joined the BJP.
The BJP has fielded Hardik from his home town, Viramgam.
AAP a spoilsport?
The AAP factor could also play spoilsport for both the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress in Saurashtra. A number of youngsters from the Patidar community have been supporting the Arvind Kejriwal-led outfit in Saurashtra and Surat, especially those associated with the diamond polishing and cutting industry.
The BJP this time is seen compensating for any lack of support from the Patidars with the OBC and other major communities in the region, especially those along the coastal belt, which accounts for nearly 40 per cent of seats. The Congress traditionally enjoyed a support base in these coastal seats with a strong OBC base.
Those closely watching the Gujarat polls said this year, the BJP has increased the number of OBC candidates in the region.
Ever since its below-par performance in the region in 2017, the BJP has been making concerted efforts to regain the lost ground. It did this by poaching Congress MLAs.
Of the 20 Congress MLAs, who defected to the BJP between 2017 and 2022, half of them were from Assembly constituencies in the Saurashtra region. They include Soma Patel (Limbdi seat), Parsotam Sabariya (Dhrangadhra), Brijesh Merja (Morbi), KunvarjiBavaliya (Jasdan), Vallabh Dharaviya (Jamnagar Rural), Jawahar Chavda (Manavadar), Harshad Ribadiya (Visavadar), Bhagvan Barad (Talala), J V Kakadiya (Dhari), and Pravin Maru (Gadhada).
Besides the Saurashtra seats, BJP faces challenges in seats in South Gujarat region, especially the tirbal reserved seats, where its performance was below par in 2017. Protests over tribal land acquisition for highway and Par-Tapi-Narmada river-linking project has marred the prospects of the BJP in the southern region.
Of the 89 seats where polling is being held in first phase, as many as 35 seats are spread across the southern districts of Bharuch, Narmada, Tapi, Dang, Surat, Valsad and Navsari. In 2017, the BJP had won 25 of these 35 seats while the Congress and Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) won eight and two seats, respectively.
However, in case of the 14 reserved ST seats in the region, the BJP could win only five. BTP won two and Congress seven. However, during by-polls, BJP won two seats Kaprada and Dang Thatwas held by the Congress.
While the tribal-dominated areas of South Gujarat are still considered the BJP's Achilles' heel, urban voters in south Gujarat have stood firmly behind the party.
In South Gujarat, the AAP factor is quite significant, especially in Surat city, where the party had managed to make political inroads by winning 27 seats of the 100-strong Surat Municipal Corporation elections held in 2021.
Surat, the epicentre of the Patidar quota agitation led by Hardik Patel in 2015, had witnessed large-scale violence then. Local traders in Surat also were up in the arms against the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, and there were strikes.
But despite the opposition and protests the BJP bagged 15 out of 16 Assembly seats in Surat district, including the Patidar-dominated Varachha, Kamrej and Katargam seats in Surat city.
AAP has fielded Alpesh Kathiriya, a Patidar leader who was once a close associate of Hardik Patel, from Varachha seat. Another former Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader, Dharmik Malaviya, is contesting from Olpad on an AAP ticket.
AAP’s Gujarat president Gopal Italia is contesting from Katargam seat. Even the local AAP leaders are confident of victory this time. Their confidence comes from the support they have been getting from their party leaders like Kejriwal,Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann, Delhi deputy CM Manish Sisodia and other who have been camping in Gujarat even before the elections were announced on November 3.
Coming back to the tribal seats of South Gujarat, of the 14 reserved seats, the BJP currently holds seven -- Dang, Kaprada, Umargam, Dharampur, Gandevi, Mahuva and Mangrol.
The young tribal face of Congress, MLA Anant Patel, was at the forefront of protests in Navsari and Valsad districts against land acquisition for highway projects. He also led massive agitation in south Gujarat against the Par-Tapi-Narmada river-linking project, which proposed to transfer surplus water from South Gujarat rivers to the arid regions of Saurashtra and Kutch.
The tribals claimed that they would lose their land and homes due to the dams that would be built as part of the project. Following the large-scale protests, Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel scrapped the project in May.
While the Congress believes that the tribal voters will never trust the BJP, the ruling party is confident of a better performance in the tribal regions. The PM also began his election campaign from the Kaprada in Valsad in a bid to woo the tribals, who also have been the focus of a number of welfare schemes proposed by the Central and state governments.