Before the Gujarat Assembly elections, Patidars across the state spent close to a year expressing anger at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and their determination to vote against it. The land-owning community has been demanding reservations in higher education and employment since 2015 and has turned against the BJP, the party it once supported. But on Monday, as the BJP managed to cling to power and win a sixth consecutive term, many Patidars said this was just the result they had hoped for.
The BJP went past the majority mark to win 99 seats in the 182-member Assembly, but it was a big step back from their tally of 116 seats in 2012. The Congress, meanwhile, managed to win in 77 constituencies, gaining 17 seats from its 2012 tally of 60. In the 52 Patidar-dominated constituencies where the community accounts for more than 20% of the population, the BJP took 28 seats while the Congress won 23.
The election results have made the urban-rural divide between the two parties evident. The Congress won a chunk of the seats in rural Saurashtra, Kutch and the Adivasi belt of eastern Gujarat, gaining control over a large part of the state’s geographical area. The BJP, on the other hand, asserted its power over Gujarat’s major cities, winning almost all the Assembly seats in urban centres such as Ahmedabad, Surat, Rajkot and Vadodara.
For Patidars both in urban and rural Gujarat, these results are proof that their state-wide agitation for reservation has been effective. They are now celebrating the fact that the BJP has won by its smallest margin in the state.
“The BJP had become too egotistical by being in power for 22 years, so this win by such a narrow margin will reduce its aham [arrogance],” said Ashok Patel, a 52-year-old farmer from Madheli village in Vadodara district. “Now the government knows it has to work very hard to stay in power.”
‘Can we trust the Congress?’
Patel’s village falls under Vadodara’s Vaghodiya constituency where, despite clear signs of disgruntlement with the BJP in October, voters re-elected party candidate Madhubhai Srivastav as their MLA. Similarly, in Saurashtra’s Jetpur constituency – home to Patidar farmers and urban textile factories – BJP legislator Jayesh Radadiya returned to power with a margin of more than 25,000 votes.
“Many Patidar farmers here had been saying for a long time that they would vote for the Congress this election, because the BJP does not work for farmers,” said Rasikbhai Sakhiya, a farmer from Pithadiya village in Jetpur. “But then before the election, many of us sat and thought, can we really trust the Congress? What if we vote for them and they also do not work for us?”
Sakhiya said that in the end the people of Jetpur decided to vote for Radadiya, who was the more familiar candidate and whose father is well respected as the head of the district cooperative bank. “It is actually a good thing that the BJP won the election in this manner,” said Sakhiya. “The farmers in other parts of Saurashtra have taught the BJP a good lesson, and now the government will be forced to focus on addressing farmer issues like lack of irrigation water and low minimum support prices.”
One of the Saurashtra districts to have “taught the BJP a lesson” is Morbi, where Patidars work as farmers, small businessmen or in the ceramic tiles industry. Voters in all three constituencies of Morbi elected Congress MLAs, for the same reasons that drove Jetpur towards the BJP at the last minute: expectations of improvement in irrigation supply, minimum support prices for crops, and employment.
“I am happy that Congress won in my constituency, even if BJP won the state,” said Himanshu Patel, a 19-year-old engineering student from Bhutkotada village in Morbi’s Tankara constituency. “Our new MLA has said that he will do in five years what the BJP could not do in 22 years. So the BJP will definitely face a lot of pressure now to address all the problems of Patidars and other people that it has been ignoring all these years.”
‘This is how all elections should be’
In Ahmedabad city, the epicentre of the Patidar movement launched by Hardik Patel, the Congress managed to win just one seat: Bapunagar. This is a Patidar-dominated lower-middle class suburb where residents suffered alleged police atrocities in the aftermath of Hardik Patel’s rally in August 2015.
Even after voting for the Congress in their own constituency, many Patidar voters in Bapunagar claim they are happy the BJP has won the state. “This is what we actually wanted – an election where the BJP has not won much, and the Congress has not lost much,” said Vipul Patel, a textile worker from Bapunagar who cannot remember the full name of his new MLA, Himmatsinh Patel, but describes him as a “good man”.
Viper Patel admits he was vehemently anti-BJP right up to a few months ago, but is relieved the party managed to retain power. “We cannot give power to the Congress, because its image is bad,” he said. “Chor na haath ma chaavi na apai,” he said. (You cannot give your key to a thief).
He added, “But it is good that [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s claims of winning 150 seats have been punctured. The BJP will now be scared of what the public can do. This is how all elections should be.”