Ahmedabad: Former Gujarat chief minister Keshubhai Patel, who will announce a new political front on Monday, is likely to pose a challenge to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) only in the Saurashtra region in the upcoming state polls.The region has 54 of the total 182 assembly seats. Patel and other BJP dissidents, who have come together to campaign against chief minister Narendra Modi, could affect the electoral outcome of about 20-25 seats, according to experts. Whether this move would benefit the Congress was not clear at this point, they said.The Modi government’s main political opposition in Gujarat is the Congress party, which lost the last 2007 elections to the BJP. Modi has been chief minister for 11 years and has been accused of being high-handed and ruthless with those who don’t agree with his policies. He has been tipped as the one of the party’s strongest prime ministerial candidate.On Saturday, Keshubhai, 84, who ushered in BJP rule in Gujarat in the nineties, said he has quit the party and would launch a political outfit that would be the “real BJP”. Former union textiles minister Kashiram Rana, who has also quit the BJP, said he would join Keshubhai’s outfit.
The new party aims to contest in all the 182 assembly seats. Former home minister Gordhan Zadaphia, who declined a ministerial berth offered by Modi in 2004 and floated the Maha Gujarat Janta Party (MJP) in 2008, is also supporting Keshubhai.Keshubhai became a pracharak (volunteer) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1945 and rose to become the chief minister in 1995. He soon faced a revolt from party man and RSS member Shankarsinh Vaghela and had to resign before leading the BJP to an electoral victory in 1998. In 2001, Modi replaced him as chief minister.Keshubhai has won assembly elections from various constituencies in Saurashtra such as Kalavad and Gondal. He also won the Lok Sabha election in 1977 from Rajkot.Keshubhai Patel is credited with building the BJP’s Patel vote bank in Gujarat. He kick-started his poll campaign last month by addressing meetings at places such as Bhavnagar, Surat, Jamnagar, Rajkot and Junagadh, all of which are key Patel areas.“Other than Saurashtra, where Keshubhai’s new party could impact about 20-25 seats, I do not see any major political shake-up elsewhere. If you ask me who will stand to lose, I understand that the loss will be the BJP’s. If you look at the other aspect, unlike the tribal population, Patels are scattered in the state and they constitute about 14% of the state’s population.Patels also vote for the Congress in Saurashtra; so there could be dent in Congress’ votes as well. We need to get a clearer picture on Keshubhai’s new party and the candidates it fields,” said Achyut Yagnik, an Ahmedabad-based political expert.In 2007, Keshubhai asked the Patels not to vote for the BJP. However, Modi scored thumping victories in the region. The story looked a bit different in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls when the Lehvua Patel community, to which Keshubhai belongs, had rejected the BJP candidate, resulting in the party’s loss of the crucial parliamentary seat of Rajkot that it won between 1989 and 2009.“In Gujarat, all castes are divided. So, though it is a contributing factor, caste-based politics is not a determining factor here. The illusion that Patels will vote for Keshubhai is very naïve. Keshubhai and his new party can have an impact only if they build up a strong organization at district, taluka and booth level.This, it does not seem to have done so far,” said Ghanshyam Shah, former professor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “The anti-Modi wave could certainly increase in about two dozen constituencies in Saurashtra with this new third front.”Another important factor, according to Yagnik, would be the manner in which the state handles the drought in Saurashtra. The rainfall deficit in Saurashtra this year has been 79% of the last 10 years’ average. Gujarat is the country’s largest cotton producing state, and most of its produce comes from Saurashtra. The sowing in the region is down 28%.“This is the first time in Modi’s tenure that the state is facing a drought-like situation. If he declares a drought, he cannot lavishly spend on media campaigns as it would not be morally right,” said Shah.
“Modi’s popularity in the coastal areas in Saurashtra seems to be on the wane. But what better alternative this so-called third front which follows the same ideology as the Sangh Parivar or the BJP follows remains to be seen.”