On Monday, November 14 Gujarat High Court is expected to hear the state government’s submission on the tragic collapse of the hanging bridge at Morbi on October 30 that killed 135 people including 55 children. The High Court had taken suo motu notice of the case and turned newspaper reports into a petition and in an extraordinary gesture observed two minutes’ silence in the court to mourn the dead.
BJP and Gujarati media have however brushed aside the tragedy, and few expect it to influence the outcome of the assembly elections next month. BJP has controlled the Morbi municipality since 1986, interrupted by short stints by the Congress totalling just two years. The state government has suspended the chief executive officer of the municipality and has denied the ticket to its MLA from Morbi, a defector from the Congress. It has also constituted an SIT and a committee to investigate the accident, and BJP is hoping that the steps would be deemed sufficient by the High Court.
It may, however, find it more difficult to explain why the absconding industrialist Jaisukh Patel, whose company Ajanta Manufacturing Company, was given the contract to repair and maintain the hanging bridge, is yet to be apprehended, questioned and booked. Patel, believed to be a major donor to the BJP and an influential industrialist, observers say, is unlikely to be hauled up before the election gets over.
But even more culpable than the industrialist are officials who allowed the company with no previous experience of repairing bridges to grab the contract without any bidding. No satisfactory explanation has been given on reports that though the company was paid Rupees Two crore for the repair, it got it done by a sub-contractor at an expense of merely Rupees 12 lakhs. Further, the sub-contractor replaced the wooden planks on the floor with aluminium sheets but did not touch the 140-years-old cables or get experts’ views before declaring it safe to be opened.
If the High Court does ask tough questions on Monday and instructs the state government to take tough measures, Morbi may yet cast a shadow on the elections.
The popularity in Gujarat of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the unstinted support to the BJP by the state’s industrialists and business community, the loyalty of the bureaucracy and the police to the BJP, and the support of the middle class and traders have ensured BJP’s victory in past elections.
Yet, BJP’s seats in the assembly declined in every successive election till it won just 99 seats in 2017. However, it engineered as many as 17 Congress MLAs to defect since then, taking its tally to 111 and reducing the strength of the Congress to 60. This, ironically, is also working in its favour as demoralised anti-BJP voters question the point of voting for the opposition if opposition MLAs were to defect after the election.
In 2017 Rahul Gandhi too had campaigned extensively in Gujarat; but this time it is not clear if he will be able to spare much time for campaigning in the state. While Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his trusted lieutenant Raghu Sharma have been camping in Gujarat to oversee the Congress campaign, popular perception is that Congress this time is not visible on the ground and is not as aggressive as it was in the last election. The conventional wisdom is that the party will be feeling the absence of Ahmed Patel, the late political advisor to Sonia Gandhi, also.
While conceding that this time there is no people’s movement—unlike in 2017 when Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani himself had spearheaded the agitation—Mevani, in an interview to The Quint appeared hopeful.
“The party is not holding big rallies, it is not visible in the media lens, but we are holding nukkad sabhas, reaching out to masses at rural levels – even PM Modi has acknowledged that. We have active booth committees, community influencers and ground level workers working in a more organised manner this time. That is what we lacked in 2017,” said Mevani, the Congress Working President in the state.
For the first time, he added, he found even BJP workers lacking in enthusiasm, energy or excitement. Issues like unemployment, contractual jobs in the government and high prices, he believes, would also influence the poll outcome adversely for the BJP.
While the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has grown in visibility in the state, Mevani held, the party lacked a mass base. While it was easier to infiltrate into social media, he felt, it was more difficult to infiltrate into 18,000 villages within five or six months.
The decision of Indranil Rajyaguru, a prominent leader who was earlier projected as AAP’s chief ministerial face, to rejoin the Congress along with a host of other leaders from both AAP and BJP, including the son of Shankarsinh Vaghela, is also politically significant.
That BJP is not leaving any stone unturned is evident in the extensive campaign by the Prime Minister. He has made it into a personal battle. The union home minister Amit Shah, who was also the minister of state for home in Gujarat, has been camping in Gandhinagar supervising BJP’s campaign. A Gujarati newspaper in fact reported on Thursday that instructions had gone out to prepare a list of bootleggers who were not BJP-friendly!
While Gujarat is among the wealthier states in the country and BJP is firmly entrenched in it for the last 27 years, not all is well in the state. Hooch tragedies and repeated drug hauls, atrocities against Dalits, grandiose plans like making Dholera bigger than Shanghai, GIFT city etc. are being talked about. The poor state of government schools and hospitals beyond the major cities of Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Surat and Vadodara, are also a poll issue, thanks to AAP’s vigorous campaign.
BJP has sought to counter anti-incumbency by hounding opposition leaders and targeting rebels. Old cases against Jignesh Mevani have been fished out and the government went to court to plead that six months’ imprisonment was not sufficient for the ‘crime’ of blocking a road during an agitation in 2016.
Vipul Chaudhary, former chairman of Dudhsagar Dairy, a powerful milk cooperative in north Gujarat on the lines of Anand, was arrested in September 2022 for allegedly siphoning off Rs 750 crores between 2005 and 2016. His wife Gitaben and son Pavan who are abroad have also been named in the FIR with his chartered accountant Shailesh Parikh. Chaudhary was earlier arrested by the state CID in 2020 for allegedly siphoning off Rs 14.8 crore from a fund meant for paying bonuses to workers of the dairy. However, little has been heard of the cases.
His arrest is linked to his decision to set up a non-political outfit, Arbuda Sena. While it was ostensibly a non-political outfit, BJP leaders suspected it would be utilised against them in the election.
Chaudhary, still behind the bars, can influence the outcome in 12 assembly seats of North Gujarat, where his community has a say. Some observers believe that arresting Chaudhary to neutralise him before the election may actually boomerang on the BJP.
As BJP released the first list of its candidates for 160 seats on November 10, among them 69 sitting MLAs, several stalwarts including former chief minister Vijay Rupani and Nitin Patel indicated that they would not contest in the election this time. BJP rank and file are said to be dissatisfied over the decision to induct defectors from the Congress and to field them as candidates after ignoring the old and loyal workers.
The real drama and infighting, some observers expect, will begin after November 17, the last date for withdrawal of nominations.
Courtesy National Herald