Saurashtra is to Gujarat politics what Uttar Pradesh is to India’s. If Uttar Pradesh sends the largest number of MPs to Parliament, Saurashtra sends the largest number of MLAs, 54, to the Gujarat Assembly. As Uttar Pradesh, Saurashtra has some highly backward pockets, a largely agrarian economy and a deep-rooted caste system that has often led to violent conflicts resulting in massacres.
Saurashtra, a region of 12 districts, has been a BJP bastion for almost two decades, sending almost one-third of its MLAs to the Assembly. However, this time, sensing an opportunity to end the BJP’s hold, the Congress has given special focus to the region.
In September, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi kicked off the election campaign from the Dwarkadheesh temple in coastal Saurashtra and then travelled through the hinterland touching Jamnagar, Rajkot and Morbi and again coming to the region to pray at the Somnath temple, another historical place of worship, and then interact with fishermen in Porbandar.
Two factors are giving a ray of hope to the Opposition party. One is the farm distress due to the low prices of cotton and groundnut and the second is the unrest among Patidars, making up the second largest community in the region after the Kolis of coastal Saurashtra.
Despite bumper harvests of cotton and groundnut, farmers are upset because of the low prices.
“I have never seen such an anti-farmer government in my entire life. This government wants to kill farmers. During the term of the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre, we used to get ₹1,300 a kg for cotton and that time, [then Chief Minister and now Prime Minister] Narendra Modi would say farmers should get ₹2,000. Now farmers are not even getting ₹1,000,” Jivabhai Patel, a farmer in Sureddranagar district, says.
The Patidar factor, though limited to pockets such as Morbi and Botad, is closely linked with the agriculture crisis because the community dominates agriculture.
“There are no jobs even after you take a Master’s degree, while income from agriculture is not sufficient for a livelihood; hence, this demand for quota. If we have quota, our children can get government jobs,” Maganbhai Patel from Kalavad in Jamnagar district says.
Grappling with the farm crisis and the “low” minimum support prices, BJP leaders talk about Narmada waters, which have reached a few areas through canals, and creating industrial clusters.
In the past six months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the region many times to launch various projects.
The BJP is forced to repeat most MLAs and retain many Patidars to placate the community, while the Congress has fielded many from the Other Backward Classes. The party has fielded Patidars against the BJP’s candidates from the community in two seats in Rajkot city, Wadhvan, Borbi, Botad, Tankara, Jamjodhpur and four seats of Amreli district.