A caste battle

RK MISRA
Monday, 27 November 2017

A no-holds barred, gutter war is on the cards in Gujarat as the ruling BJP gets down to defend its Congress besieged turf in the assembly elections slated in less than a month. Polling is due on December 9 and 14 with results to be declared along with the Himachal Pradesh contest on December 18.

This is the first assembly election being fought by the ruling BJP in Gujarat after Narendra Modi, its longest serving chief minister, left for Delhi to take over as Prime Minister in 2014 after having ruled the state for a record 4,610 days  through three assembly elections since 2001.

A no-holds barred, gutter war is on the cards in Gujarat as the ruling BJP gets down to defend its Congress besieged turf in the assembly elections slated in less than a month. Polling is due on December 9 and 14 with results to be declared along with the Himachal Pradesh contest on December 18.

This is the first assembly election being fought by the ruling BJP in Gujarat after Narendra Modi, its longest serving chief minister, left for Delhi to take over as Prime Minister in 2014 after having ruled the state for a record 4,610 days  through three assembly elections since 2001.

Battling a debilitating ‘hangover’ of the Modi era, which reduced those who succeeded him -Anandiben Patel and incumbent Vijay Rupani- to lilliputs, BJP’s problems have been further compounded by burgeoning anti-incumbency. Adding salt to sore wounds is that the BJP, which has been ruling Gujarat for over two decades, this time also faces a triad of three caste champion youth leaders, who by their sheer conflict with the state government have become a force multiplier for the rival Congress.
Interestingly, all three - Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani- are more or less a creation of BJP’s internal strife. But they have now acquired a standing that is proving a challenge to the ruling party.

Patel’s dominant emergence was the result of the tussle between two of Modi’s closest lieutenants, then chief minister Anandiben Patel and party chief Amit Shah. OBC leader Alpesh Thakore owes much to deputy chief minister Nitin Patel, until he broke loose and ultimately joined the Congress recently. Dalit leader Mevani is a product of sustained government neglect of Dalit exploitation, which came to a head in the Una lynching of four Dalit youths in July last year for skinning a dead cow. The episode created a national furore and cost Anandiben Patel her chief ministership.

Hardik Patel, convenor of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), has emerged as a festering boil in the armpit of the BJP with his demand for reservation to the community in educational institutions and government jobs. The Anandiben and Rupani governments have tried everything in their armoury to contain the Patidar youth leader and his ever increasing following amongst the community youth and womenfolk, but in vain.

Hardik has been twice charged with sedition, creating disaffection amongst communities and even attempting to subvert a lawfully elected government. He was ordered out of Gujarat for six months under court orders and returned at the end of it to a larger following. Under pressure, the BJP government even introduced 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections on May 1 last year through promulgation of an ordinance. It was challenged in the High Court, which, on August 8, struck it down. The issue was thus again in the open with Hardik sticking to his guns that he would not mind supporting the Congress if it was able to convince their outfit that it would work to get reservation for the community if it came to power.

The Congress, on its part, has put its best legal brains to work and come up with a formula that was placed before the PAAS representatives at a specially convened meeting at the Gujarat Congress headquarters in Ahmedabad by legal eagle Kapil Sibal. PAAS evaluated the proposal through its own legal advisors and on November 22, Hardik announced that PAAS has accepted the formula and will support the Congress in the ensuing elections. Prima facie, it is believed, that PAAS sees Congress as their best bet in the given circumstances.

The formula will also cover other communities not covered in the existing quota and entails providing of benefits for reservations under article 31(c) and Article 46 of the Constitution without altering the current 49 per cent quota for SC/ST and OBC categories. “Reservation over 50 per cent can be given. The Supreme Court has only given suggestions. There is no law, nor constitutional provision, that mandates against reservation over 50 per cent,” Patel has said.

The decision comes as a setback to the ruling BJP. Deputy chief minister Nitin Patel’s reaction to the news almost bordered on hysteria. “Fools have given a formula and fools have accepted it,” he said. At his fulminating best, Nitin Patel launched into a virtual diatribe against Hardik, betraying the panic in the BJP camp.

Legalities of the new reservation issue apart, the fact remains that Patidars in Gujarat constitute a very strong, influential and economically welded caste grouping. After the then Congress chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki created KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) caste formation to win a record 149 of the total 182 seats in 1985, the Patels choose to cast their lot with the BJP, ensuring their steady rise in the state’s power structure. Except for a 16-month break when their senior leader Shankersinh Vaghela broke free to form his own regional outfit and come to power with Congress support, Gujarat has been BJP all the way all along since then. Congress was last elected to power in 1985, which is 32 years ago. In the period thereafter, Patels were said to have switched over to the BJP. If Hardik and his caste-mates switch sides to the Congress, what would be the loss to the BJP?

Patels constitute 14 per cent of the total 63 million population of Gujarat and 21 per cent of its voter population. Anandiben Patel, the first woman chief minister of Gujarat, was of Patidar stock. BJP party chief of her time, RC Fardu was also a Patel. Seven of the 24 ministers in her cabinet were Patidars, and so were 42 legislators.

It is this backdrop that provides for a clue to why the Congress is desperate to gain the support of the Hardik-led Patidar youths. It is also why the BJP is working overtime to corrode the credibility of Hardik, who has acquired a cult figure status. Two purported sex CDs claimed to be that of Hardik have hit social media in quick succession.

“There are 52 such CDs, commissioned by the BJP abroad under instructions of Chief Minister Rupani and state BJP Chief Jitu Vaghani,” PAAS alleged at a media conference. Both Hardik and Congress allege it to be the handiwork of a desperate BJP. “Such CDs won’t deter me from my mission, which is to get reservation for my clans-folk. I am prepared to consort with the devil for it,” Hardik has said. Hardik has has appealed through a CD in mass circulation to uproot the BJP lock, stock and barrel from power. Thus it is that the reservation issue has become a vital nut of a larger political machine holding the key to power in the state.

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