Chinks have emerged in Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political armour in Gujarat, its cradle. That too just when the poll campaign for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections is taking off. Meanwhile, the saffron party is trying to build a perception around its "invincibility" at the national level and making claims of winning 370 plus or 400 parliamentary seats.

In the last few days dissension has become evident in Gujarat over the distribution of tickets. There is anger against the BJP giving preference to Congress’ turncoats and fielding them on Lok Sabha seats, as well as for the five Assembly seat by-polls, that are to be held alongside.

The BJP has been in power in the state for the past 30 years. In the last two parliamentary polls, the party has won all the 26 Lok Sabha seats.

However, a repeat performance to claim a hat trick is proving to be an arduous task for the party even if it is well placed as compared to Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that are contesting these polls as a part of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A). Under the I.N.D.I.A arrangement, the Congress has left the two seats of Bhavnagar and Bharuch for AAP. The latter was the home turf of former senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel.

“What makes the scenario interesting is that the rumblings being felt are taking place in Gujarat and that too in the BJP. The developments remind of the fear that old school Sangh Parivar leaders used to express when they warned of the ‘Congressisation’ of the BJP meaning the latter going the Congress way in terms of the political culture attributed to the party,” a senior political observer based in Gandhinagar, said.

The replacement of two candidates in Vadodara and Sabarkantha after Ranjan Bhatt and Bhikaji Thakore ‘withdrew’ their candidature citing personal reasons, has caused considerable concern in the saffron camp. Sources on the ground say that resistance from within the party was responsible for this. There is also a section that says that Bhatt and Thakore were ‘made’ to withdraw their nominations.

Reports from Vadodara say that Bhatt who is a sitting Lok Sabha member from this constituency that had elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 along with Varanasi, has faced a lot of dissent. Banners had come up against her re-nomination, and some leaders also expressed their displeasure at the party’s decision to field her again.

Among these were the BJP’s national women’s wing vice president Jyotiben Pandya. She had gone to the extent of quitting all party posts as well as the party. Sources disclosed that the banners against Bhatt read, “‘Modi tujhse bair nahin, Ranjan teri khair nahin’ (we have no problem with Modi but will not spare Ranjan)”. Bhatt announced her withdrawal on social media.

Thakore’s withdrawal has led to problems that are refusing to die down. On Tuesday, the town of Meghraj in north Gujarat observed a bandh to air their dissent. One of the issues raised by the protestors was that a candidate from the Meghraj segment should be fielded by the party instead of always giving the ticket to a leader representing the Prantij segment.

Sources said that Thakore’s supporters even resorted to a road blockade near Shyamlaji on Wednesday. There is considerable anger over the BJP replacing Thakore with Shobhnaben Baraiya. Besides being from Prantij, she is the wife of former Congress MLA Mahendrasinh Baraiya who joined the BJP only in 2022.

There are also reports of heartburn among the party cadres over the fielding of four Congress turncoats for the Assembly by-polls on Vijapur, Manavadar, Porbandar and Khambhat seats. Among these is Arjun Modhwadia, a former Congress state unit chief who has been fielded from Porbandar.

The BJP has also fielded an independent Dharmendrasinh Vaghela from Vaghodia. He had joined the party fold along with the Congress turncoats recently, after resigning from the state Assembly.

The BJP is also facing a stiff challenge from some of the Congress and AAP candidates in fray. Prominent among them is Anant Patel who is a prominent youth leader from the tribal community. He was the one who had spearheaded the movement against the proposed central Par-Tapi-Narmada interlinking project that the Centre was forced to shelve in 2022.

This project was to pass through the five districts of south Gujarat including Navsari, Valsad, Surat, Dangs and Tapi. He has been continuously raising land acquisition concerns regarding the Bharat Mala project of the centre. Patel is a sitting MLA from Vansda tribal seat. He is contesting against Dhaval Patel of the BJP.

The second sitting MLA fielded by the Congress is Geniben Thakor on Banaskantha seat. She is a two time legislator from Vav constituency and had shot to limelight after defeating BJP heavyweight Shankar Chaudhary in 2017 assembly polls. She is pitted against Dr Rekhaben Chaudhary.

The AAP candidate from Bharuch Chaitar Vasava is also expected to pose a stiff challenge to the BJP’s Mansukh Vasava. Chaitar is the sitting MLA from Dediapada constituency. He had been in prison on charges of assault and extortion before he was granted bail after 48 days in January this year. He has claimed that he was arrested as a part of a “political conspiracy”.

Bharuch is expected to witness a keen contest as Chaitar, a 37 year old first time legislator is pitted against a six-time MP in Mansukh who comes from the era of Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee. Chaitar’s candidature was announced by AAP’s national convener Arvind Kejriwal after the arrest in January. These were reports of his candidature causing heartburn among Mumtaz Patel and Faizal Patel who are the wards of Ahmed Patel.

Another Congress legislator in fray is Amit Chavda on the Anand seat. He was nominated after senior Congress leader Bharatsinh Solanki opted not to contest. Chavda is a five-time MLA from Anklav and is pitted against Miteshbhai Patel of the BJP. Observers say this will be another contest to watch out for.

Observers are also questioning the BJP’s compulsion to shift union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya from his home turf of Bhavnagar to Porbandar. He is currently a Rajya Sabha member.

At the same time there are reports of Union Minister, and party candidate from Rajkot Parshottam Rupala, facing flak for his reported comment on the powerful Darbar community of Saurashtra. He has reportedly offered an apology but the protests have continued seeking the cancellation of his candidature.

Sources say that the BJP’s poll machinery is now being forced to work overtime since several of the candidates fielded do not have an individual prominence or a mass base. But the party has the advantage of a well oiled organisational structure. Gujarat is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf and he will address no less than five rallies and try to strike an emotional chord with the voters.

The BJP also has a strong hold on some of the seats like Gandhinagar from where Union Home Minister Amit Shah is in fray, and Navsari which is the home turf of state BJP chief C. R. Paatil. Constituencies such as Surat, Ahmedabad (east), Ahmedabad (west), Kachchh and Jamnagar are also strong BJP fortresses.

The Congress on the other hand has been witnessing departure of its leaders. Its candidate on Ahmedabad (east) seat Rohan Gupta withdrew from the contest citing his father’s medical condition.

Congress is yet to finalise its candidates on seven seats of Mahesana, Ahmedabad East, Surendranagar, Rajkot, Junagadh, Vadodara, and Navsari. It has also not announced its candidates on five Assembly seats that are to go for a by-poll. It remains to be seen whether these by-polls are also contested in a seat arrangement with AAP. The state goes to polls on May 7.