Anandiben leaves behind a divided Gujarat
Former Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel’s resignation should not surprise anyone. It had become clear for some time that she was losing grip over the administration. Broadly, there are three reasons for her resignation. First, the Patel agitation has shaken the government. Second, the arrest of Hardik Patel on charges of “treason” demonstrated that the government lacked discretion. Finally, her response to the Una incident, where Dalits men were publicly flogged by cow vigilantes, was lackluster.
While mishandling the Patidar agitation and cow vigilantism have forced Anandiben’s resignation, these issues are not confined to Gujarat. The Patidar movement is an articulation of a larger sentiment among communities that views expanding awards of quota to other castes as unfair, and therefore wants similar privileges for themselves. We have also seen the Gujjar movement in Rajasthan, the Jat protest in Haryana, and Kapu agitation in Andhra Pradesh.
The BJP government’s keenness to push Hindutva has brought in draconian cow protection laws and an environment that encourages hysteria over cow protection, to which Dalits, Muslims, and rural poor often become collateral damage. This trend will push away large sections of society from the BJP. We have seen Dalits across the country adopt a combative stance over Una incident. The joblessness-reservation binary and cow vigilantism are issues that go beyond Gujarat. They are structural fault lines BJP will have to grapple with and device solutions to. The sacrifice of one Anandiben won’t be enough.
Nobody is buying Anandiben’s explanation that she resigned on account looming 75th birthday. The age limit of 75 that Prime Minister Modi has set for the ministerial post may, of course, have in time come to determine her longevity in the chair, but the current sense of a state government gripped by crisis draws from much more than her passing years.
The UP elections may be the biggest of 2017, but the significance of Gujarat and for the Prime Minister as well as the party should not be underestimated. Modi may have chosen in 2014 to give up his Vadodara Lok Sabha seat and retain the Varanasi constituency, but he draws his authority and reputation from his base in Gujarat. This is why Anandiben’s ouster had been on cards even before her government’s failure to act to contain the damage from Una attack. She has been seen to be failing to control the Hardik Patel-led Patidar agitation, and her ineffective passive-aggressive tactics have given rivals in the state government enough of an opportunity to undermine her in a growing factional whisper campaign.
Patidars have been crucial to the BJP’s hold on Gujarat. It is their support that made it possible for the party to chip away at the Congress’s traditional KHAM alliance; their disaffection in the form of quota agitation threatens to unravel the party’s development narrative.
The BJP is beset with intra-party problems as it attempts to overcome those posed by unrest and agitations. Anandiben’s successor, Vijay Rupani, chosen by BJP’s Parliamentary Board and especially by Amit Shah, will have the difficult task of stemming the slide in popularity before Gujarat goes to polls in the end of 2017. But will a mere swap of Chief Ministers, even if the neatly executive, be enough to overcome troubles in its vaunted citadel?
Anandiben was chosen by Modi to rule in his place when he became the Prime Minister more than two years ago. She has successfully contended with factional intrigue within the party and has presided over the eruption of popular movements of discontent in a state where the BJP has enjoyed unbroken dominance since the mid-1990s.
Anandiben’s resignation outlines the political challenge for the BJP in a bastion, where for long, Modi’s persona and cult had overtaken and overwhelmed politics as usual. For many years, there was no major stirring against the ruling regime. The story changed after Modi moved to national politics.
Over the last few months, the government has been pushed onto the backfoot by at least two gathering discontents—the first uprising of the Patels, the dominant community which has traditionally supported the BJP, and the issue of reservation; and after that, by the strong Dalit protests against flogging of a family by gaurakshaks for skinning a dead cow in Una.
Their anatomy may vary, but essentially, both agitations articulate the resentment of those who feel bypassed by or excluded, from the Gujarat model of development. If on one hand, the relatively well-off Patels press their demand on the state in a time of shrinking economic opportunity for small and marginal enterprise, the historically marginalised groups, the Dalits, are reminding the state that it has failed them too. In the wake of Anandiben’s exit, therefore, the BJP must grapple with a leadership challenge and also a deeper questioning of its political and economic policy in Gujarat.
How the BJP addresses this volatility in what seemed until recently a stable stronghold will be watched. Its next steps in Gujarat will impact the elections to be held in the state next year.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)