The driver of the taxi I take at Ahmedabad airport says, with a certainty that is surprising, that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be voted out of Gujarat in December. “It’s time for parivartan (change),” he says, stressing, “no party should rule for as long as the BJP has done here. This government has become very corrupt, and there’s also demonetisation and GST (goods and services tax). So, people want to get the Congress in to teach the BJP a lesson. I say, let’s vote for the Congress and then throw them out after five years and get the BJP back in. We need a change every five years. It keeps the government on its toes.”
And then, lest anybody thinks he is biased for religious reasons, he adds, without being asked: “By the way, I’m not a Muslim; I am a Hindu.”
After 22 years of non-Congress rule, a period marked entirely by BJP regimes — except for a one-and-a-half year stint by a Rashtriya Janata Party (RJP) government — there is a perceptible change in mood in Gujarat.
The spell that Narendra Modi had cast over the State in his more than 12 years as Chief Minister has finally been broken, and ordinary Hindus — as the driver underscored — are actually questioning his record, even scrutinising his promises.
What has caused this change? It is not merely that the objective situation is bad: there is no escaping the agrarian distress, failing businesses, growing unemployment, an education system in a shambles, mounting attacks on Dalits, corruption, and even potholed roads when one gets off the superhighways.
Ask anyone — academics, civil servants, village folk, shopkeepers — and they will tell you that it is because three young men representing different social segments have been able to tap into people’s discontent against the BJP in the State.
Indeed, what is happening in Gujarat bears a striking similarity to the way the India Against Corruption movement and the Gandhian activist Anna Hazare helped to create a mood against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in the run-up to the general elections of 2014.
If the 24-year-old Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti chief Hardik Patel cast the first stone in mid-2015, launching an agitation seeking reservations for his community of Patidars (or Patels), then Alpesh Thakor, the 41-year-old founder of the OSS (Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) Ekta Manch and the Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena, immediately raised the flag to protect the OBC quota. Some even say that Thakor’s movement was instigated by the BJP to neutralise the Patidars. True or not, he reportedly negotiated with the BJP for a place in the party. But in September this year, he turned down an invitation to attend an OBC conclave in Thakor-dominated Kheda district called by BJP president Amit Shah, forcing the latter to cancel the event. A month later, he joined the Congress officially. His movement to enforce prohibition has also gone down well with rural women.
And then in mid-2016, after four Dalits were publicly stripped and flogged in Una in Gir Somnath district, 36-year-old lawyer and activist Jignesh Mevani mobilised Dalits across Gujarat to fight back.
Fight against a common enemy
On the face of it, there are deep social contradictions among the constituencies of Patel, Thakor and Mevani. However, the pressure from the ground is such that the three men are in close and constant touch. Even in public interactions, they are careful to project a picture of youth solidarity. It is important to note that there is a substantial number of Gujaratis who have no memories of a non-BJP government.
In his home in Ahmedabad, seated beneath a portrait of B.R. Ambedkar, Mevani says, “Yes, there are social and economic contradictions. But the objective reality is that the biggest common enemy of the Patidars, OBCs and Dalits today is the BJP. Sooner or later, these contradictions will surface. But first the battle against fascism must be fought and the BJP dislodged from power.” He acknowledges that this would only provide “interim relief” as “fascism just can’t be defeated through electoral gains; it will require a long battle.”
A day later, on the campaign trail in Bhavnagar, Patel answers a similar question: “We haven’t come together on a common platform but on issues that concern all of us. We are talking of oppression (by the state), Alpesh Thakor is talking of prohibition, we are talking of reservation and securing jobs, they are saying it’s important to get good education. Where is the contradiction? On the question of the OBC quota, whichever government is there, there are many ways in which our demand for reservations can be accommodated, perhaps even through a constitutional amendment.” He adds that he, Thakor and Mevani have taken on the “responsibility” to ensure that their supporters “vote against the BJP, vote for their honour, their rights, vote for a prosperous and happy Gujarat.”
In an interview to NDTV , Thakor makes a similar point, stressing that if dominant castes like the Patidars have fallen through the cracks of economic progress, they should be reassessed. “Let a comprehensive survey be carried out to determine the economic status of the upper castes. Let the findings be placed in the Vidhan Sabha, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and before the President. Let them get their due. Why should we oppose it?” He adds that like Patel, he too is fighting for the poor, and this makes them “natural allies.”
On the ground, too, their success in mobilising support is visible. In Bhavnagar, the fact that Patel is two hours late for a rally has not dampened the enthusiasm or the discipline of his supporters, mostly male and young.
In Mehsana, activists who work with Mevani are charged up about a variety of issues: most Dalits still don’t control the land for which they have pattas , Dalit sarpanches have to battle daily to exercise the authority they have, and Dalits face insults and humiliation every day with little recourse. At Thakor’s small office in Ahmedabad, the line of ticket-seekers has grown manifold after he joined the Congress.
The Patidars account for over 16% of the State’s population. Most of them have traditionally been with the BJP. The OBCs account for at least 40%, and the Thakors, who form 26% of the population, have drifted to the BJP from the Congress. While Dalits are traditional Congress voters, some have switched allegiance to the BJP. But they make up just 7% of the population.
The success of these three men in channelling the discontent in the State, and the nature of the movements they lead, have ensured that caste is suddenly in the forefront, pushing Hindutva to the background, at least for the moment. The last three Assembly elections in 2002, 2007, and 2012 had revolved around the larger-than-life personality of Modi (then the Chief Minister), the Gujarat model of development, and the appeal of Hindu majoritarianism in varying forms.
If caste dominates discussions, and Hindu-Muslim tension is not visible, it is largely because Muslims are maintaining a low profile. In Ahmedabad, the Congress’s Gyasuddin Habibuddin Shekh, one of the two Muslim MLAs in the State, is at pains to stress that he visits Jain and Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras as often as he visits mosques.
In Godhra, Sajid Pathan had teamed up with Harin Patel more than 15 years ago to run a Tata Motors showroom. On March 2, 2002, their tractor division, run entirely by Maqboolbhai, was burnt down in the communal violence even though all the employees were Hindus. It has been rebuilt since, and Sajid Pathan and Maqboolbhai no longer discuss politics, preferring to focus on business instead.
In the poorer quarter of Godhra, for Hasina, wife of Ramzan bin Yamin Behera, an accused in the Godhra train burning case whose death sentence was recently commuted to life imprisonment, life is hard. Hasina’s husband had been an autorickshaw driver who ferried children to school. After his arrest in 2002, she was forced to become a domestic servant to be able to bring up their six children. Talk to her about the current situation and the only thing she says is that her husband was wrongly charged, and that her brothers will help to challenge his conviction in a higher court.
‘There’s no PM like Modi’
Today, it is acknowledged by all but the most diehard Modi supporters that the Centre’s decision last November to demonetise 86% of the country’s currency, combined with the imposition of a complicated GST earlier this year, has taken its toll on small and medium businesses across the State. For a mercantile people like the Gujaratis, there can be nothing worse than the disappearance of an enabling environment to make money, and this has ensured that the “ vikas (development) has gone crazy” jokes spread like wildfire across social media.
To counter this mood, and the fact that Modi has actually become the subject of jokes and even derision in some quarters, the BJP has released a short video film that makes an emotional appeal to Gujaratis. It aims to counter the criticism of Modi as a “dictator who disrupted people’s lives” by arguing that the country has never had a Prime Minister like him — someone who has worked tirelessly without a day’s break, fought black money, motivated soldiers, and is trying hard to create a “clean India” without playing caste or vote-bank politics the way other politicians do.
Shot at a roadside barber’s shop in Gujarat, the video shows an angry young man interrupting a conversation between two Gujaratis who call Modi a “dictator jene pathari fervi kaadi che (a dictator who has brought bad times for the people).” The man lectures them for over three minutes on how Modi “starts working at 5 a.m. everyday, spends Diwali with soldiers, doesn’t throw cocktail parties for journalists or takes them on foreign tours.”
The Modi supporter even cites the examples of Sonia Gandhi and Lalu Prasad, who are only “setting their sons in the right places”, and Mulayam Singh, who is “creating a secure future for his entire family.” He then adds that the country needs to consider if it deserves a Prime Minister like Modi who is only interested in “setting the future of the country right.” He also warns that “if Modi fails, no other Indian Prime Minister will dare to fight corruption in 100 years.” It ends with the man introducing himself as “ Hu vikaas chu, Hu chu Gujarat” (I am development, I am Gujarat), the BJP’s tag line for this election.
Strangely enough, the mood of the video is reflecting on the ground across the State, especially in parts of Saurashtra, and north and central Gujarat. At Jagudan village, former sarpanch Haribhai Patel is giving a nuanced picture of the political situation, explaining why it is difficult to call this election just yet. “It’s 50-50 right now,” he says. A crowd gathers and other villagers talk of their difficulties, the lack of remunerative prices for their crops, and the selling of grazing land ( gauchar ) by the government to industrialists, adversely affecting the animals they breed. Suddenly, a man bursts in: “This is all nonsense. Only uneducated people will vote for the Congress. The BJP will be back. Modi is a great man.”
The BJP is very conscious of the simmering discontent and has realised that if it does not deflect attention away from the current burst of caste assertion and dissatisfaction with the Gujarat model, and on to issues of national security, terrorism, and rashtrawad (patriotism), it could find itself in a tough situation.
The BJP’s toughest challenge yet
All this has meant that the Congress, hampered by the lack of a strong local face, is suddenly in the running. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is actually drawing big crowds across the State, and the party, hit by dissidence just a few months ago when Leader of the Opposition in Gujarat, Shankersinh Vaghela, departed with his followers, has united to fight the BJP.
At the spanking new, state-of-the-art BJP headquarters on the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar road at Koba Circle, the BJP’s communication chief in the State, Jagdish Bhavsar, says, “Before 1995, if you leave out the brief period when Vaghela was Chief Minister of a RJP government, there was no peace, no security, no development in Gujarat. Now there is peace and security, and our slogan is ‘ Shanti, Salahmati aur Vikas (peace, security and development).” We talk about Gujarati asmita (pride). Surat and Ahmedabad are like mini-Bharats as they attract migrant workers.”
Bhavsar pooh-poohs the impact of the three young men, and says the Congress is not in the fight as it is backing “anti-nationals in JNU”, “promoting azadi in Kashmir”, and promoting “ vanshwad ” (dynasty), unlike the BJP which is for “ vikaswad ” (development).
As far as the demand for reservations by the Patidars is concerned, he stresses that the BJP government has clarified that they “cannot be included in the OBC quota but 10% reservations for the economically weaker sections can be provided for.”
If the BJP is trying hard to shift the focus to national issues, it is also gearing up its organisational machinery, which has always been superior to that of the Congress. “The election mechanism is very important,” says Bhavsar. For the four or five booths located in one school, there is a Shakti Kendra in-charge. Below that is a booth in-charge, taking care of 800-1,000 voters. But that’s not all: more than five lakh party workers have been deployed as panna in-charge, where each has the responsibility to ensure that the 50 voters who appear on one page (or panna ) of the voters list turn up to vote.
On the other hand, Congress spokesperson for Gujarat, Manish Doshi, says, “The Modi magic was based on a 70% focus on propaganda, 20% on self-advertisement, and only 10% on administration. No real work was done. Only his cronies benefited. He has fooled too many people too many times. That bubble has burst.” The Congress, he says, is focussing on economic issues, the need to revamp education and healthcare, and provide jobs, even as it continues to puncture the Gujarat model.
With the elections little more than a month away, no one is willing to say anything more the fact that the BJP is facing its toughest-ever challenge, with even Shah wary of addressing a rally after he had chairs flung at him at a public meeting in Surat last year. Many even believe that Modi has not really played his trump card yet that and that he will do so in the coming weeks — and pull off yet another victory.