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BJP banking on Patels to sweep Gujarat

March 09, 2004 19:15 IST

Forty-four of the 182 legislators in the state assembly, seven sitting MPs and six of the 15 ministers are Patels. A sizeable section is engaged in the diamond trade in Surat in south Gujarat.

Consisting mainly of middle class voters and farmers, Patels constitute one-fifth of the electorate in the state and are concentrated in Saurashtra and north Gujarat. The other region they are concentrated in is central Gujarat. A large number of them are followers of the high profile Swaminarayan sect.

If it is to make a clean sweep of the 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat, this is the community on which rest the hopes of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

It was this community that the BJP, led by senior leaders like former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, nurtured in the run up to the 1995 assembly elections to dislodge the Congress from power and lay a strong foundation for the party.

As chief minister, Keshubhai announced a slew of reforms aimed at farmers (mostly Patels) to consolidate the BJP's popularity among the community, which relished the economic and social empowerment after suffering alienation for several years as the Congress was busy wooing the Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims (KHAM).

The KHAM factor kept the Congress in power for several years and once helped former chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki capture a whooping 145 seats in the 182-member house.

A note of dissent did creep in during the recent agitation, spearheaded by Sangh Parivar affiliate Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, by farmers against the hike in power tariff for the farm sector. The issue was resolved amicably after the state government backed off and BJP leaders maintain that the issue would no way hamper the party's poll prospects.

Sitting MP from Patel-dominated Amreli constituency Dilip Sanghani says: Votes from this community will be a major deciding factor in the coming polls. Given the work done by the government, the biggest beneficiaries of which were Patels, they will once again vote for us."

"The farmer leaders hold no grudges against the party. Their attack was directed at an individual," said another BJP leader, apparently referring Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

However, Congress, which had extended support to the anti-government agitation, refuses to buy the argument saying the farmers are 'totally averse to the BJP after the recent hike in tariffs'.

"We are confident that 15 per cent of farmers from the Patel community will not vote for the BJP. Even if they do not vote for the Congress or simply refrain from voting, we will reap the benefit," says erstwhile Sangh Pracharak and former state Congress chief Shankersinh Vaghela.

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