On Wednesday evening, the BJP parliamentary board met in New Delhi to decide on tickets for the Gujarat elections.
The discussions happened, but the announcement of the tickets was held up. And in that meeting and delay perhaps lies a story of how extraordinarily important ticket distribution is to the prospects of both the BJP and the Congress in the Gujarat election of 2017.
The BJP is not only deploying its traditional tools and methods to get its own ticket distribution right. It is banking very heavily on Congress getting it wrong, and was, in fact, hoping that the Congress would announce its tickets first so that the party could respond accordingly. That could, party sources hint, explain the partial delay in announcement.
But first the background.
The absence of a single overarching issue across the state’s multiple regions, the presence of a complicated caste matrix, fissures in social coalitions of both the BJP (whose Patidar supporters are reportedly drifting away) and Congress (whose tribal voters may be shifting loyalties), and narrow margins has made each seat a distinct battle this time around. To be sure, ticket distribution is central to every poll.
Three broad trends in BJP’s ticket distribution strategy across states are now clear.
One, party chief Amit Shah is personally involved in the exercise based on consultations with state party president, chief minister, top leaders and organisation general secretary. Feedback on each seat is drawn from multiple channels — local party unit, the Sangh parivar affiliates, independent volunteers and independent survey agencies. A candidate is judged on his appeal in the area, his caste background, his economic strength and ability to raise resources and, thus, on winnability. Given the intimate knowledge that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has of each seat, and each leader in Gujarat, expect him to have the final call.
Two, in states and local bodies where the BJP is in power, it is happy to weed out incumbent candidates. This is counter intuitive as a sitting MLA or MP, in conventional politics, often used to have the first right over the ticket. Shah has repeatedly told aides, “Anti-incumbency is often against the candidate, not the party. Remove the candidate to neutralise the mood.”
This is straight from Modi’s textbook who often changed many past winners in Gujarat. It was most obvious in the case of MCD elections in Delhi earlier this year, where all corporators were replaced with a new set, giving the party a fresh look. In Gujarat too, the incumbent MLAs are jittery because many past winners are set to be replaced.
And finally, the party has been more open than ever to import candidates. This is particularly true of states and seats where it has traditionally been weak. The philosophy is somewhat simple — where you cannot win, get the candidate who can win. It will not be as widespread in Gujarat as it is in UP, but rebels from the Congress camp will find space.
Two other factors will be important in Gujarat this time around. Through the caste mix of candidates it picks, a party signals to the various social groups the importance they will have if they come to power.
Take Gujarat itself, where to quell rebellion by Patels under Keshubhai Patel, the BJP almost gave a quarter of the seats to Patidar candidates in 2012. In this election too, how it distributes tickets to Patidars and balances it with other caste groups, will be important, particularly in the two vulnerable regions of Saurashtra and North Gujarat.
But what is equally important to the BJP is how the Congress distributes tickets. A key state leader told HT, “All this hawa around Congress will collapse the day tickets are announced. Right now, everyone is working in the party. As soon as tickets are declared, only the candidate will work and all other aspirants will go quiet or rebel.”
The BJP feels its own relatively disciplined structure will contain rebellion. But Congress has internal candidates, it has sitting MLAs it has promised tickets to and it has to allot a substantial number of seats to loyalists of Hardik Patel, and a few to those of Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. Many who lose out will, it is assumed, either move towards Shankersinh Vaghela’s party — which is desperately looking for candidates — or fight independently. They could then play the role of spoilers.
There are also contradictions — if Congress gives ticket to a Thakor, Patidars may not vote for it and vice versa. BJP hopes to capitalise on this.
As BJP prepares to announce its candidates for the first phase, tentatively on Friday, it hopes that its own tested methods and the Opposition’s mistakes will help it gain the edge.