Why Saurashtra is a weak link in BJP's bid to hold onto Gujarat
As Gujarat gallops towards a tight contest in the upcoming assembly polls, the most bitter battle is once again expected in the Saurashtra region of the state where the ruling BJP faces an uphill task.
With the party being unable to provide satisfactory answers to the agitated masses in the rural heartland, particularly farmers, the BJP campaign is now being spruced up with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh narrative on Somnath even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes around talking about having provided water to this parched region.
Points of concern
Many believe that even the Congress leadership has failed to grasp the key issues on the ground that are actually going to prove to be the deciding factor on the day of the polling. The general perception is that the Congress stands to gain by default and this gain can be increased if Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi and other key campaigners raise real issues instead of just attacking Modi on crony capitalism, demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
The most important issue that is playing thee role of an under current across the region is the farm distress. The farmers are far from happy with both the BJP regime at the centre as well as that in the state. The farm leaders working on the ground are questioning Modi on the promise made ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls on implementation of the MS Swaminathan committee report in the agriculture sector.
With both the cotton as well as the groundnut produce leaving the farmer high and dry this season, the cause of worry for the BJP has multiplied. The production has been good but the procurement and payments to the farmers have been far from satisfactory.
“The groundnut produce is something around 31.29 metric tonnes. The procurement price announced by the government is Rs 900 per 20 kg. But the procedural hiccups and other failures of the government have led the farmer to sell the produce between Rs 600 and Rs 650 per 20 kg. At many places, private players have stopped procuring the produce saying they have no place to store it. This added to the farmers' misery,” says a senior media person who has been reporting on this region.
The story is no different for cotton where, according to the farmer leaders, the production has crossed 90 lakh bales.
“The Minimum Support Price (MSP) announced by the government is Rs 910 per 20 kg, but what the farmer has actually be able to retrieve from the private players is nothing beyond Rs 750 per 20 kg. Even private players are not procuring the produce citing the reason that the ginning units have stopped purchase of cotton on account of delay in refunds of the GST. The procurement by the government remains a tedious procedure,” says farmer leader Sagar Rabari. Observers say that the government announcing bonus payments have also been of no use.
Many farmers are now talking about the tall claims that Modi used to make on cotton while blaming the then UPA regime under Dr Manmohan Singh for the misery of Gujarat's cotton farmers. The farmers are now referring to Modi calling Gujarat's cotton produce as 'white gold' amid promises that when the BJP government came to the power in the Centre, the remunerative prices for the produce would be Rs 1500 per 20 kg.
The battle for water
Farmers in the region are also up in arms against BJP for having failed to provide water for irrigation. While the Narmada canal has been built, they say that there is no proper distribution network.
Worse, though the priority of the Narmada project was to give water first for irrigation and then to industry, the reverse has been implemented.
“The Narmada waters have been given to Botad, Bhavnagar and Surendranagar while the rest of the Saurashtra remains parched. The much touted SAUNI (Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation) scheme which Modi has played up time and again since the last assembly polls has faced questions on its feasibility even from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG),” says Rabari.
Islands of discontent
Apart from farmers, fishermen also have a few bones to pick. Apart from the issue of their being taken into custody by Pakistani marine agencies, which manages to get the occasional media coverage, there are other issues that are hardly ever addressed.
“The fishermen in Porbandar area are angry over the failure of the government to carry out the required dredging works to ensure safety of their boats. They had to collect Rs 20 lakh recently among themselves to get the work done. They are annoyed that all this has happened in the constituency of fisheries minister Babubhai Bokhiriya. The situation is no better in other fishing towns and BJP is all set to pay a price among the fishing community,” says out a media analyst based in Rajkot. He said that government giving a contract for dredging at the fag end of its tenure will not yield the desired results.
Then there are the many problems that have arisen from GST, particularly in districts such as Rajkot, Morbi and Jamnagar that are known for their small scale enterprise.
“The small entrepreneurs are silent but very annoyed with the misery that shoddy implementation of GST has unleashed on them,” says the media analyst.
"There are issues pertaining to transportation of produce. The internal roads are in bad shape. They also want proper rail connectivity and place to store their containers. These issues have been pending since long and the entrepreneurs are annoyed," says Mayurika Maya, a journalist who recently toured Morbi extensively.
Unemployment has also been on the rise, forcing the youth from districts like Bhavnagar, Surendranagr and Amreli to move towards cities like Surat to work in textile and diamond polishing units and also to Rajkot to work in various industries. All this has added to the simmering anger among the people.
Whether the discontent in the hinterland of Saurashtra gets converted into a vote for the Congress remains to be seen. BJP had initially faced an uphill task in this region, having 54 constituencies in 2012 also when former chief minister Keshubhai Patel had floated Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) ahead of the assembly polls. But Modi had managed to turn the tables around and get 32 seats by claiming to be a victim of the Centre's policies.
But this time, it is the BJP at the Centre and it is finding it difficult to provide satisfactory answers - and has thus been forced to resort to the age-old trick of rhetoric.