The Bharatiya Janata Party is not only locked in a make-or-break battle with the Congress in Gujarat, which goes to polls on Sunday, it is also fighting party rebels across the state.

On Friday, the BJP suspended 24 party members for entering the electoral fray as independents or candidates of other parties, including the Congress, after being denied tickets by the ruling party. Many of these rebels held high positions in the BJP and are considered serious contenders who pose a threat to the party and its candidates.

The setback in Gujarat came on the same day the BJP celebrated its victory in the Uttar Pradesh civic body elections, including in 14 of the 16 mayoral seats on offer.

Ajay Chaudhry is one among the prominent BJP rebels in the fray in the Gujarat Assembly elections. He was the party’s general secretary from Surat before he was suspended for his decision to contest the polls as an independent candidate from Choryasi seat in the South Gujarat city.

“I am not a rebel,” declared Chaudhry, a migrant from Bihar. “I am just a plain man of the common people, and a great majority of them in my constituency are Hindi-speaking migrants who have been living here for decades. I understand them and I believe what I am thinking, they are thinking.”

He added, “There is a feeling among the Hindi-speaking people of Choryasi that they are being ignored by the BJP. They have rebelled en-bloc, and I am only a part of this group.”

Ajay Chaudhry is one of many prominent BJP rebels contesting the Gujarat Assembly elections as independent candidates or on the tickets of other parties.

‘BJP leaderless in Gujarat’

The BJP in Gujarat has not seen dissension of this kind since Narendra Modi became chief minister in 2001 and held that post till 2014, when he was elected prime minister.

“For the most part in the last two decades, the party’s decision-making structure remained firmly in place,” said Bhimjibhai Patel, another BJP rebel now contesting as an independent candidate from Karanj seat in Surat. “The commands used to come from the top and [were] obeyed at the bottom. Scarcely a voice was raised in disagreement. But Narendra Modi’s shift to Delhi has left the BJP leaderless in Gujarat where nobody knows which caucus is behind which decision of the party.”

Patel blamed the party for forcing him to take this step. “I joined the BJP in 1981, when I was only 15,” he said. “Since then I have worked as a loyal soldier of the party. Twice, from 2005 to 2015, I represented the party as a councillor in the Surat Municipal Corporation. In 2012, when I first expressed my desire to contest the Assembly elections from Karanj, I was promised by the party leadership that my candidature would be considered in 2017. But they denied me a ticket and forced me to chart my own course.”

He added, “It is very much the same with a large number of loyal party workers throughout the state.”

Rebels in all corners

Like Chaudhry and Patel, former BJP state executive member Khumansinh Wasia is contesting as an independent candidate from Jambusar seat in Baruch district in South Gujarat.

In Jalalpur and Chikhli constituencies in Navsari district, the BJP is facing an even more acute challenge as it is up against not one but two rebel candidates. While Dhananjay Bhatt and Arjun Patil are in the fray in Jalalpur, former party MP Kanjhi Patel and his son Sunil Kanjhi Patel are both independent candidates in Chikhli.

The situation is even more glaring in Saurashtra, where party leaders contesting as rebel candidates include Ramesh Dangar in Jamjodhpur seat, Arjan Kanjaria in Dwarka, Goardhan Sarvaiya in Bakaner, Tulsi Gohil in Gir-Somnath, Dilawar Singh Gohil in Bhavnagar (rural), Nanubhai Dankhra in Palitana and Hamirbhai Khataria in Dhari. In Jamnagar (rural), former BJP leader Vallabhbhai Dharasia is contesting on a Congress ticket.

In North Gujarat, prominent BJP rebels contesting as independent candidates include Juban Singh in Mehmdabad, former MLA Kama Rathore in Sanand, Dr Vishnudhan Jhula in Radhanpur, Hitendra Vardeo Patel in Balasinor and former MP Bhupendrasinh Solanki in Lunawada.

In Central Gujarat, former party MLA Babubhai Bhabhor is in the fray in Limkheda constituency as an independent contestant while former state minister Bimal Shah is doing the same in Kaparvanj. Another former BJP leader, Bhavesh Katara, is the Congress candidate in Jhalod constituency in Dahod district.

Godhara constituency, also in Central Godhara, is expected to see a tight contest with Jaswantsinh Parmar, a former member of the BJP’s Panchmahal district executive committee, standing as an independent candidate and former BJP MLA Haresh Bhatt contesting on a Shiv Sena ticket.