Gujarat is missing its CM Narendra Modi

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Patan/Mehsana/Vadodara/Anand: Nobody in Gujarat likes a weak leader. We have been used to Narendra Modi who is now the prime minister. The two chief ministers of Gujarat after Modi left three years ago have not been able to impress the people. A leader should be strong,” said 66-year-old Maniram Suthar, a farmer in Mehsana constituency.

As the campaign for Gujarat elections enters its final week, it is becoming more than clear that it is all coming down to Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has struggled to fill the vacuum Modi left behind. Economic shocks in the form of agricultural distress, demonetisation of high-value currency notes and the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) together with the wave of social unrest, particularly among Patels, have only reaffirmed popular sentiment that Gujarat after Modi has left people disappointed. In fact, BJP had to remove its sitting chief minister Anandiben Patel, one of the strongest Patel leaders and handpicked by Modi, 16 months before the assembly elections.

Economic shocks in the form of demonetisation and GST, together with the wave of social unrest, particularly among Patels, have only reaffirmed popular sentiment that Gujarat after Modi has left people disappointed

The last time BJP had to remove its sitting chief minister due to public anger was in 2001 when Keshubhai Patel was removed and Modi took over after the large-scale destruction due to the Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat.

“Narendra Modi was well-known for strong administration and effective management. The leaders who came after Modi have failed to fill the gap. It’s been three years and still people look at Modi and not any state leader. Gujarat needs Modi’s way of functioning,” said Kaushal Pathak, a 42-year-old businessman in Anand constituency.

Political analysts concur that the leadership vacuum has weakened the BJP campaign. “Narendra Modi’s absence is a big jolt for BJP. There is a no replacement for Modi in Gujarat. The control of Modi over government and party is lacking, the state government and the party do not function like one. Modi used to manage party and government, there was only one leader,” said Mukesh Khatik, political science professor at Gujarat University.

Political mismanagement of the Patel agitation has fuelled the anger of the community, which had in the past, especially in the Modi era, stayed loyal to the BJP. Now sections of the community are bitter.

It’s been three years and still people look at Modi and not any state leader. Gujarat needs Modi’s way of functioning– Kaushal Pathak, businessman in Anand

“If BJP is so confident that the party did not hurt the pride of Patels, the party should make Anandiben Patel or any member of her family contest the elections. The fact is that BJP leaders, especially those in Delhi and also in Gandhinagar, know that Patels are annoyed with the party. We are the ones who voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we brought the party to power, and now we are getting beaten up by the police. Why should Patels suffer? There is a feeling in the community that Patels have lost their political and social influence. We want our respect back,” said Patel Hardik Vishnu, a 24-year-old farmer in Mehsana constituency who has completed a course from the Industrial Training Institute (ITI).

Interestingly, the mass movement which was started by Hardik Patel of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) for reservation for Patels as other backward classes (OBCs), especially in education and government jobs, has evolved into one seeking to reclaim their political influence.

“It is said that Congress will not give us reservation as demanded by Hardik Patel. It doesn’t matter. This election and the anger within Patel community is not about whether we get reservation or not. The election is to assert the Patel identity. The community lost 14 young boys because of government action, and now it is our time to punish the government,” said Jitubhai Patel, a 44-year-old resident of Patan area who runs a car accessory business.

This election and the anger within Patel community is not about whether we get reservation or not. The election is to assert the Patel identity. The community lost 14 young boys because of government action, and now it is our time to punish the government– Jitubhai Patel, businessman in Patan

To be sure, it is not the first time that BJP under Modi is facing opposition from Patels. The party had to face a similar challenge in the 2012 Gujarat elections when former chief minister and senior BJP leader Keshubhai Patel had floated his own party, Gujarat Parivartan Party. It could win only two of the 167 seats it contested while its vote share was 3.63%. Keshubhai Patel, who was the most influential leader of Patels, could not defeat Modi and his party finally merged with BJP which brought an end to the fight for Patel votes.

“Earlier the community used to vote as Leuva or Kadva Patels but this time, because of the government action, we will vote as Patels. There is no distinction on what is the sub-caste—everyone is a Patel first,” said Janak Patel, a 53-year-old financial adviser in Patan constituency.

Analysts believe the erosion in Patel votes is acute in rural areas. “It is not that all Patels are angry with BJP. Those living in big cities and are financially secure are not angry with BJP. The problem for the BJP is in rural areas where Patels are facing rural distress, lack of education facilities and employment opportunities,” added Khatik.

Earlier the community used to vote as Leuva or Kadva Patels but this time, because of the government action, we will vote as Patels. There is no distinction on what is the sub-caste—everyone is a Patel first– Janak Patel, financial adviser in Patan

In the final stretch it is clear that Modi holds the key to BJP’s fortunes. It is not without reason that Modi has conducted 35 public meetings across the state and is repeatedly attempting to make a personal connect with the voters. The big question is whether his personal chemistry with the Gujarati voter, which stays unblemished, will eventually swing the election BJP’s way for a record fifth term in power.