The date is set for the Election showdown in one of the most important states of India. Yes, Gujarat elections 2017 is picking up the pace and the dates have already been announced. The Gujarat elections 2017 in the home state of PM Narendra Modi are set for the showdown on 9th and 14th of December. With BJP ruling over the state for almost two decades now, stakes are high for Congress, who are determined to do well. However, Congress is not the only obstacle in the way of BJP. Patidar leader Hardik Patel and the likes of Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor are making sure that the elections this time are not a walk in the park for BJP. So let us analyze how Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani will cause problems to BJP.
Victory is certain, the Gujarat elections 2017 shall be about winning 150 seats, Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah had said, addressing a rally in Junagarh in June this year. However, as the elections near, this target no longer seems easy for the BJP to achieve. As political tides take a new turn every day, the BJP seems to be in an uncomfortable position in the state it has ruled for two decades.
In mid-October this year, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel, and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, appeared together for an interview for the first time in a programme organized by a national channel. The three youth leaders took the platform to declare an ‘anti-right wing’ front. Mevani claimed that the three of them could together make a dent in 120 out of the 182 assembly seats. The trio later found itself in the midst of the BJP-Congress face off in poll-bound Gujarat.
Will Caste play a strong role in Gujarat Elections 2017?
With the exception of 1997, BJP won all elections under the leadership of Narendra Modi, who was Chief Minister of the state during 2002, 2007 and 2012 Assembly elections. After Modi became the Prime Minister, the post of Chief Minister was passed on to his proteges including the incumbent Vijay Rupani. Unlike Modi, Rupani is generally not considered charismatic, and BJP is depending on Modi again to win the upcoming Assembly elections toward the end of this year.
In the run-up to elections, political analysts are attaching a lot of importance to the caste arithmetic of Gujarat while analyzing the political scenario of the state. Three young ‘leaders’ of Gujarat – Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani – have emerged as the representatives of their caste and caste groupings, and all of them are showing their resentments against Prime Minister and BJP. Hardik Patel was the first to dominate the headlines of media when Patidar movement was going on. Patidars were demanding their inclusion in the list of OBCs. They were asking for something which is not possible under our Constitutional provisions because Article 15 and 16 of Indian Constitutions clearly states that only “that backward class of citizens” will be given this facility, which is not adequately represented in government services. Patidars are most advanced people of Gujarat and they cannot be called “backward”. Further, they are adequately represented in government services of Gujarat and hence do not deserve reservation.
Though Patidars do not fulfill criteria to be included in OBCs, the then Anandi Ben Patel government seemed to be inclined towards them and hence a counter movement was started by youth belonging to OBCs under the leadership of Alpesh Thakor. This movement gave birth to another youth leader. The third youth leader, Jignesh Mewani, emerged after the atrocities on Dalits by the so-called cow vigilantes. Now, these three leaders are giving sleepless time to BJP in one way or the other. Hardik Patel is dead against BJP because the government has slapped charge of sedition against him and he had to spend months in jail; the case is still pending against him. Jignesh Mewani is against BJP as he believes that rowdy elements of BJP are behind the atrocities against Dalits and the state government of BJP had failed to provide protection to them.
While one can understand why Hardik and Jignesh are against BJP, it is rather surprising that even OBC youth leader Alpesh Thakor has chosen to side with Congress to defeat BJP. When asked as to why he was supporting and joining Congress, he replied that he took the decision after conducting a survey in which 81 percent of his supporters wanted to side with Congress. Obviously, Alpesh Thakor has no personal issues with BJP like Hardik Patel and OBCs do not get suppressed like SCs. Yet, he has decided to go with Congress after a so-called survey. And this factor has the potential to spoil the chances of BJP to win Gujarat.
With caste equations pitted against BJP, some political pundits have forecasted that Congress will significantly improve its tally in the upcoming election. But the million dollar question is whether castes matter a lot in Gujarat? BJP had emerged as a big force in Gujarat in the 1990s because of the solid support of Patidars and Ram temple movement, but the tallest leader of Patidars turned against BJP after losing the post of Chief Minister. Despite his rebellion and opposition, Modi continued to win elections in Gujarat belying all poll predictions. If the rebellion of Keshubhai could not mar the chances of victory of BJP, how can Hardik Patel spoil its chances in polls? Again, it is true that Alpesh emerged as the voice of OBCs, but that was for a cause and the cause was to prevent the government from according the status of OBC to Patidars. If Congress is seen giving any assurance to Hardik Patel over his demands of OBC quota, the majority of OBCs may not follow Alpesh to side with Congress. And if Hardik Patel supports Congress unconditionally Patidars may not queue up behind him to join hands with Congress. Hence, we can say that though caste is going to place a role, its role might have its own limitations.
Why Hardik and Co. won’t join Congress for the Gujarat Elections 2017?
In 2012, veteran Patel leader and former CM Keshubhai Patel rebelled to form his own party. If a division in Patidar votes could win Congress its first victory in Gujarat in two decades, it would have happened in the last assembly polls. The Congress game-plan failed the last time around for two reasons. Firstly, Patels since Madhav Singh Solanki’s pulverizing victory in 1984 are well entrenched in the BJP. In fact, the community has been the backbone of BJP’s revival in Gujarat. So any attrition in the ranks and file is limited and temporary. Secondly, since Patidars are socially and economically well off, they like any other intermediary agrarian community are politically vocal. Their voice thus is disproportionate to their numerical or voting strength.
Though the last caste census in India was conducted in 1931, roughly extrapolated, Other Backward Castes, which is an amorphous group of close to 150 communities in Gujarat, would constitute more than 40% of the electorate. That is more than thrice the Patidar population in the state. That explains why Congress is overtly wooing this silent yet numerically dominant community in the western state and is making no bones about it. Alpesh Thakor was readily accepted by the party and Rahul Gandhi traveled to attend an OBC rally organized by Thakor in Ahmedabad. Having publically aligned with OBC caste groups, it is but obvious now that both Congress and Hardik would not want to be seen courting each other to take on the BJP.
Patels were up in arms against the state government demanding reservations. This could have been done in two ways — either increase the quantum of quota or include Patels in the OBC list. The first option was legally untenable since it would have violated 50% ceiling set by the Supreme Court. The second one would tantamount to Patels competing for a quota pie which has been exclusively reserved for the OBCs. In fact, the rise of Alpesh Thakor as an OBC leader was seen as a challenge to any effective dilution in the reservation benefits for the community. The social incompatibility of the two communities vying for the same quota pie makes it politically imprudent for the Congress to take along both OBCs and Patels. Moreover, coming out in open support of the Congress may dent Hardik’s appeal within the community to damage the BJP. This explains why Congress in Gujarat has welcomed Thakor with open arms. With Hardik, the association would have to be covert. In other words, Congress wants Thakor to fetch votes. It is relying in on Hardik to engineer attrition in BJP’s core vote base.
Joining Congress or not, fighting alone or together, it is sure that the trio of Jignesh, Alpesh and Hardik are going to make sure that they fetch some votes and make it hard for BJP. However, still, the BJP seems to be favorite for the win but they are surely going to face some severe problems this year.