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How Amit Shah gave BJP last-mile push in Gujarat civic polls

By Radhika Ramaseshan
March 08, 2021 17:42 IST
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When Home Minister Amit Shah, who was in Gujarat to cast his vote in the urban body polls, learnt of the poor voter, instead of heading home he went to the Motera stadium, organised a control room, and was on the phone with practically everybody assigned duty on the ground: MPs, MLAs and BJP office-bearers.

His single commandment was to check the voter list and phone or personally get people to the booths, reports Radhika Ramaseshan.

IMAGE: BJP supporters celebrate their victory in the poll. Photograph: ANI Photo

On February 21, when Gujarat voted in the polls to elect members to six urban civic bodies, Union Home Minister Amit Shah was in Ahmedabad to exercise his franchise in a ward in Naranpura, with his family. It was a little past noon. Shah was informed the voter turnout was just 11 per cent in several wards, including his; similar reports had come from the other cities, too.

Shah was quick on the ball -- instead of heading home, he went to the Motera stadium (inaugurated by President Ram Nath Kovind on February 24), organised a control room, and was on the phone with practically everybody assigned duty on the ground: MPs, MLAs and BJP office-bearers. His single commandment was to check the voter list and phone or personally get people to the booths.

A Gujarat Bharatiya Janata Party source said between 3 pm and 5 pm, an hour before polling closed, his friends and relatives spoke of receiving calls every 10 or 15 minutes beseeching them to vote. By 4 pm, offices of the Congress had shuttered.

 

Sources said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah had “no direct role” in the corporation polls, apart from seeking feedback from Chief Minister Vijay Rupani and state BJP President C R Patil, who is also Navsari MP. “Until that moment on voting day, when Shah realised that his party’s committed supporters must be galvanised. His involvement worked,” a source said.

It was not an easy election but it was less tough than the one in 2015. “There were issues related to the pandemic, the extended lockdown, and the escalating fuel prices. There was a rebellion in the BJP’s ranks after ticket distribution. But there were more problems in the last election. The Patidar stir for reservation had turned violent, and there was dissidence against then CM Anandiben Patel,” said a political observer.

According to the state election commission, the turnout was 43 per cent, just over 2 percentage points less than 45.67 in 2015. At 39.54 per cent, Ahmedabad reported the lowest voting and Jamnagar the highest at 52.49 per cent. Poonam Madaam, Jamnagar MP, ascribed the voter turnout decline to “fear among people over Covid because urban areas were the worst hit”.

However, the outcome more than made up for the percentage drop. The BJP swept the polls, netting 482 of the seats 576 seats for the first time, although since 1995, the party has controlled the corporations, barring an occasional break. With 55 seats, the Congress barely survived, while the Aam Admi Party breached the BJP’s Surat bastion with a 27-seat debut, throwing the Congress out of the frame.

An exultant Gujarat BJP office-bearer attributed the victory to the leadership’s “killer instinct”. “This instinct pushed us to win big in the Hyderabad civic polls. The CM and Paatil had a lot to do with it because if Rupani hadn’t delivered, the speculation over his exit would have started afresh. Paatil wasn’t an organisation person but Shah trusted him with the responsibility and he had to vindicate the trust,” he said.

Gujarat BJP general secretary Pradipsinh Vaghela, who was on the candidates’ selection panel, said: “Our victory is the result of the thrust on development and nationalism. Nationalism courses through the veins of every Gujarati. Our promises, whether it was diluting Article 370, building the Ram temple, or bringing in the Citizenship Act amendments, were fulfilled. It was a combination of local and national.”

The granular details on the broad canvas also built the edifice of the BJP’s victory. Many of the sitting candidates, who had served three terms in the civic bodies, were dropped; those above 60 were excluded and the claims of the kith and kin were rejected.

Vaghela said: “The average age of our nominees was 40. Seniors were told to mentor the newcomers. But we ensured that these newcomers had served the BJP for at least five years. The selection went through three tiers, from the mandal to the district, and then the state level. Those in the screening panel cross-verified the nominees’ antecedents.” As many as 104 sitting councillors were denied tickets and all the 38 who were repeated won.

Under Shah’s tutelage, Paatil introduced a new element in electioneering. That was a panna samiti for every booth. The panna pramukhs of the past, who were handed over one or more voter lists to connect with voters and ensure they voted, were regrouped into small committees. Each committee was tasked with reaching out to five-six families from its lists and asking these families to not only ensure that their members showed up at the booths but also confirm that another five or six families in their neighbourhood voted the BJP.

“Each samiti was virtually in charge of getting 30 or 40 committed votes,” said Vadodara MP Ranjanben Dhananjay Bhatt.

Certain features of the electioneering provoked the Opposition’s ire. For example, when the state election commission appointed former BJP associates as presiding officers.

Shashikant Yadav, who helmed the Gujarat BJP’s IT cell, was tasked with overseeing the Muslim majority wards of Dariapur, Jamalpur, and Shahpur in Ahmedabad, although he later asked the commission to take him off.

When Parimal Trivedi, former vice-chancellor of Gujarat University, was asked to conduct the Ahmedabad polls, he refused. But Trivedi wasn’t allowed to get away easily. He was assigned the job of supervising the count of postal ballots.

Shailesh Zala, former V-C of Bhavnagar University and ex-vice-president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, oversaw polls in western Ahmedabad.

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Radhika Ramaseshan in New Delhi
Source: source
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