2017 close shave set off alarm bells for BJP, paved way for 2022 victory

Dec 09, 2022 04:03 PM IST

After 2017, the party moved quickly on several fronts to address the concerns that damaged its electoral performance and this administrative overhaul was key to its performance in Gujarat 2022.

On December 18, 2017, when the last vote in Gujarat had been counted, the mood in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was less than upbeat. Though the party had won its sixth straight assembly elections, its tally had shrunk to below 100, the Congress had posted its best results in a generation and the party had suffered setbacks in its citadel of Saurashtra. Celebrations were muted, and the message from the top leadership – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last-leg campaign blitzkrieg had pushed the party over the halfway mark – was clear: The rank and file would need to hit the ground, and prevent opponents from grabbing political space.

BJP supporters burn firecrackers to celebrate the party’s win in Gandhinagar on Thursday. (Reuters) PREMIUM
BJP supporters burn firecrackers to celebrate the party’s win in Gandhinagar on Thursday. (Reuters)

“You can say that the preparations for 2022 began in 2017,” a senior BJP leader based in the state said, requesting anonymity. 2017 was the first assembly elections in the state after Modi moved to the Centre as PM, and the BJP had hoped for historic results. But the results were a wake-up call, one that the party took seriously. The results of the latest assembly elections vindicate this: the party set a new record by winning 156 seats and 52.5% of the vote. It demolished the Opposition even in their erstwhile citadels and won seats the BJP had not won in a generation.

Back in 2017, the party may have been complacent, admitted the leader cited above.

“There was a lot of talk about the Gujarati asmita (pride); people were jubilant that our chief minister was now the PM, but somehow there was complacency that the party will win with a decisive mandate and we failed to read the mood on the ground.”

That mood – anger among farmers, small traders and Dalits, and an explosive agitation by Patidars seeking reservation in jobs and educational institutions – hurt the BJP in an unprecedented way.

“It was then we sat and decided that we need to revisit the old system of going back to the booths. In the last five years, we invested in addressing the concerns of the communities in addition to improving the model of governance,” the leader added, requesting anonymity.

Changes in the organisation

After 2017, the party moved quickly on several fronts to address the concerns that damaged its electoral performance and this administrative overhaul was key to its performance in Gujarat 2022.

“What gave us hope (in 2017) was that though our numbers had fallen, the vote share had gone up (It was 47.85% in 2012 and rose to 49.1% in 2017). So, changes were made at different stages to reclaim the lost ground,” the leader cited above explained.

Changes were first effected at the district and state level. In July 2020, CR Paatil, a three-time lawmaker, replaced Jitu Vaghani as the state unit president. The exit of Vaghani raised eyebrows within the party as many were not convinced about the wisdom of replacing a Patidar leader from Saurashtra with someone with roots in Maharashtra. The party’s performance in subsequent bypolls necessitated by the defection of eight Congress MLAs to the BJP and the local body elections under Paatil’s charge put to rest these doubts quickly.

More changes were in the offing. As the pandemic exposed the deficiencies in the administration and stoked discontent, the senior leadership replaced Vijay Rupani with Bhupendra Patel as the new chief minister, changing the entire council of ministers as well – merely 15 months before polls.

The party gave no explanations for the change, but it was evident that the move was intended to blunt anti-incumbency. In Patel, the party wanted to present a CM with no baggage, a clean image and his low-key mode of functioning.

“This is a cadre-based organisation where decision making is a well-guarded process. When the decision was taken, it was conveyed and accepted by the leaders, just as they accepted the decision to induct into the party Patidar leaders who had led a morcha against us,” said a second leader and a former legislator, requesting anonymity. His reference was to Hardik Patel who was the face of the Patidar agitation and given a ticket to contest from Viramgam. He won by a margin of 51,707 votes.

Panna pramukhs

Like Hardik Patel, the party made room for Patidar leaders from other parties and began the process of invigorating the cadre at the booth level. Panna pramukhs or people in charge of one page of the electoral roll – the core of the party’s electioneering process – were given targets to include at least one member from each family in their jurisdiction.

“The panna samiti members were given the task of collating information about the beneficiaries of central and state schemes. Then they reached out to them and enrolled at least one member from these families in the samiti, ensuring that the family would become potential voters. There are about 7-8 million members in these samitis and when you add up the votes of their families and supporters, we get an edge over our opponents,” the second leader added.

The focus was also on motivating people to vote and not opt for none-of-the-above (NOTA) option, which was held responsible for crimping the winning margins and some losses in the previous elections. In 2017, data showed NOTA was overall fourth, with more votes than what some regional parties such as the Nationalist Congress Party and Bahujan Samaj Party gained.

Out with the old

The process of ticket distribution was helmed by the party’s senior leadership in Delhi. “While detailed reports (on the candidates) were drafted in the state, each name was sanctioned by the leaders in Delhi. Amit Shah, CR Paatil and JP Nadda were involved in all stages but the final election strategy was drafted by Shah. He knows the minutiae of each seat,” said the first leader.

The party dropped about 41 sitting MLAs and a large number of senior leaders, including Rupani, deputy CM Nitin Patel and senior leader Bhupendra Chudasama opted to not contest. The party also strengthened its presence in areas where it performed poorly – Saurashtra, seats in South Gujarat with high tribal population, and rural areas. It also set about renewing its old but somewhat fraying ties with a community with the ability to tip the scales with their political and numerical heft, the Patels.

In Saurashtra, which has 48 assembly seats in 11 districts, the party made efforts to blunt anti-incumbency by replacing existing candidates in a majority of the constituencies. The Congress won 30 of the 48 seats in 2017. The BJP also made a concerted effort to woo the Patidar and the Koli communities by ensuring the implementation of welfare schemes.

Five-member teams comprising members from marginalised castes and other communities were formed for outreach. For the first time, the party increased the number of Brahmin candidates, from nine in 2017 to 14, and a team – which included media convenor of Gujarat, Yagnesh Dave, and Rajya Sabha MP Rambhai Mokariya – was set up to reach out to the community.

“The other factor that helped in the rural areas particularly was that the water situation and the power supply vastly improved in the state which helped bring down the anger among the farming community. Government officials were instructed to ensure that mandis were purchasing produce at MSP,” said the second leader cited above.

Modi, the face

With the Congress in disarray and the Aam Aadmi Party in its first outing in the state, the perception was that the BJP was headed for an easy victory. But the party still pulled out all stops for its campaign, which was led from the front by its biggest mascot, PM Narendra Modi, and included senior ministers and even chief ministers of other states. The party referred to this campaign as “carpet bombing”.

“With Modi as our leader and the face of our election campaign, we could withstand the fiercest attack from our opponents, because the people in the state have faith in him. They have seen his performance as CM, they see him as one of their own and they love him, he is the single biggest reason for the BJP’s win,” said the first leader.

With the central leaders taking over, the narrative also shifted from hype local to larger national issues. The party skillfully diverted attention from inflation and concerns about rising prices (a common complaint) and spoke instead about India’s accomplishments on the world stage.

From rescue operations that brought students from war-torn Ukraine to vaccines that were offered to Western nations, the BJP’s poll narrative was successful in transcending the boundaries of local issues.

The results were there for all to see on Thursday.

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    Smriti covers an intersection of politics and governance. Having spent over a decade in journalism, she combines old fashioned leg work with modern story telling tools.

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