Soon after I crossed the border from Rajasthan into Gujarat (I visited late in October), the first Gujarati I met wasn’t affected by GST. Running a mobile accessories shop at the pilgrimage site of Shamlaji, the young Brahmin man said tourists keep his shop running.
In the 2012 Assembly elections, he had voted for the Congress. This time, he said, he will vote for the BJP. That’s curious, considering the BJP is said to be losing some voters, not adding them.
“The BJP always wins in Gujarat,” he said. “What’s the point of voting for the Congress? It gets a handful of seats.”
Why, then, did he vote for the Congress in 2012? “My family members were all voting for the Congress, so I did the same,” he replied.
Was he happy with the government headed by Vijay Rupani? Not at all. “He is doing nothing.” Was Anandiben Patel better? No, just the same. How was Modi as chief minister? Great. And Modi as prime minister? “Unable to succeed like he did in Gujarat.”
He is the sort of voter who doesn’t want to waste his vote. He wants the vote for the winner this time. He isn’t particularly happy with the BJP in Gujarat, even though the pressures of GST haven’t hit his business. If only the Congress could project winnability, have the “vatavaran” (atmosphere) on its side, it would have this man’s vote.
Further on the highway to Ahmedabad, a man buying a cigarette at a kiosk starts abusing the BJP in unprintable language. He is, unsurprisingly, a Patel. Why is he so angry with the BJP? He is a farmer whose potato crop is rotting, there’s no market for it. The issue is not reservations, he says, but that the BJP has disowned farmers. “Nine out of ten Patels will vote for the Congress,” he declares before leaving.
Three men are talking over cigarettes near the kiosk. All three say Congress. One is a Brahmin, one a Kshatriya and one a Patel. The vocal one is, unsurprisingly, a Patel. He’s an engineer and starts hurling abuse at the BJP just like the farmer. But he couldn’t be worried about potatoes, what’s his issue? “My problem is that first they humiliated Anandiben Patel, then they didn’t make Nitin Patel the chief minister, and instead gave the post to a baniya! A baniya!”
But the Congress isn’t giving you reservations either, I argue. “No one is,” he replies. “It’s not about reservations. This election is about teaching the BJP a lesson. Not that I love the Congress. They are fathers of Muslims. Voting for the Congress is like blinding yourself in one eye. But this time, I will do that because I want to blind the BJP in both its eyes!”
You would expect someone using such strong language to say the Congress is winning this election. “The BJP will win anyway,” he says.
Why? “The BJP will give tickets to a lot of Patels, give some importance to Anandiben. We Patels are like sheep, we’ll all head to vote for the BJP despite…”
He was confident the Congress wouldn’t be smart with ticket distribution. And that seems to be the general consensus. If the word you hear the most about the BJP is “anger”, the phrase “ticket distribution” comes up a lot when discussing the Congress.
Three men are sitting and chatting away on a pavement as we take a detour to go into a village. What is the election vatavaran like? Two of them insist the BJP will win. Why? “They have done vikas (development),” they reply. Their castes? “We are both Muslim.” Were they speaking for BJP out of fear?
The third man said the situation is “fifty-fifty,” the vatavaran is still developing. He was a Patel, a Hindu. “There’s a lot to be seen. Modi saab will come and campaign. Let’s see what he says, especially what he says about Patels. Then we’ll make up our minds.”
Patels, even the super angry ones, are upset with the BJP like an outraged girlfriend waiting and willing to be mollified. They are also willing to be wooed by the Congress, but the Congress isn’t really a factor. The factors are BJP, Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Vijay Rupani, Anandiben Patel, GST, Hardik Patel and so on – the Congress could at best be the beneficiary of the vatavaran, not its creator.
Like Patels in the north, businessmen in Ahmedabad express anger with the BJP, but are resigned to the reality that the BJP will win anyway, because it always does, because it knows the art and science of elections and the Congress doesn’t.