Of the three young men who have galvanised Gujarat, ahead of the Assembly elections there, Dalit lawyer and activist Jignesh Mewani is perhaps the most articulate. In a recent interview in Ahmedabad, he talks to Smita Gupta about what Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and he have achieved, analysing and anticipating problems while stressing that the first battle is to dislodge the BJP from power.
Has anything changed in Gujarat since the last Assembly elections?
The most evident change is that no one is talking about the Gujarat model: the Patidars, OBCs and Dalits are up in arms, but so are ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers, anganwadi workers, farmers, labourers, traders. The vikas (development) balloon has been punctured; the BJP can no longer use the Sabka Vikas slogan.
The mood has changed: this kind of dissatisfaction has not been seen in 22 years. The ASHA workers threw bangles at (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s road show as he entered Vadodadra on October 22. In early October, angry residents of a municipal ward in Vadodara tied a BJP corporator to a tree and beat him up for failing to prevent demolition of their slum.
Ever since chairs were thrown at (BJP president) Amit Shah at a rally in Surat last year by Patidars, he has been caged and the BJP has been on the backfoot.
What are the reasons for this change in mood?
(There has been) severe economic exploitation, agrarian distress, growing unemployment. For Dalits, apart from the economic problems, they are suffering from a sense of injustice.
Immediately after four Dalits were publicly stripped and flogged in Una in the Gir Somnath district in July 2016, the community got activated. I was able to mobilise Dalits across Gujarat. I am picked up and arrested every time Narendra Modi lands in the state.
The contradictions have sharpened. The Hindutva wave has worked three times (in 2002, 2007 and 2012), but if my child is still suffering from malnutrition, you can't fool me any longer.
Three youth faces — Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and mine — have appeared. The three of us have come through agitations, we did not belong to any political party and therefore had no baggage. (It is only now that Alpesh has joined the Congress.)
So caste is challenging Hindutva?
A mobilisation on caste lines may not be a good thing but a deep analysis of what is happening now will show that the articulation of the caste-class reality is bound to happen in the absence of a progressive movement. What is happening has its roots in the current economic crisis.
The promise of seven crore jobs in three and a half years by the BJP have not been fulfilled, the Rs 15 lakh in every bank account has not happened, the price of dal has shot up, farmers have not been given remunerative prices. The answer to everything is gaimata (the cow is the mother). And demonetisation and GST (the Goods and Services Tax) have already devastated people.
Earlier, Mr. Modi was able to display a masculine larger than life image, using Goebbelsian rhetoric and the Hindutva wave. I have been to 16 States after Una, and I can tell you his graph is going down.
Aren’t there social contradictions between Patidars, OBCs and Dalits — the three sections represented by Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and you? How will you get around that?
Of course, 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. That will provide interim relief. Fascism just can't be defeated through electoral gains, it will require a long battle.
How do you see your role in the coming elections?
My role is to ensure that the over seven per cent Dalits in Gujarat don't vote for the BJP. Currently of the 13 reserved seats, 10 are with BJP, but this time, the Congress will win 9 this time.
Isn't the BJP very strong still in urban Gujarat?
Yes, we are yet to crack the urban areas, but the BJP will be wiped out from rural areas. There is an anti-BJP wave but no pro-Congress wave yet. Hindutva still works in urban areas.
There is a refreshing innovative content that is coming from rural areas. A large chunk of Patels will come out strongly against BJP. Alpesh Thakore has mobilised his community.
The BJP tried hard to woo the Dalits but the Ramnath Kovind card (making him President) did not work because of (the suicide of) Rohit Vemula, and (the attack on Dalits in) Saharanpur (in Uttar Pradesh) and Una.
I have created consciousness among Dalit youth in rural areas, and have a slight influence among middle class Dalits. But because of class differences, the middle class Dalits may not yet join hands with working class youth.
Will you form a political party?
I have the soul of an activist; I don't want to form a party.
Some of Hardik Patel’s followers have left him.
It has not affected his mass base. Alpesh’s base is solid. But because of the fragmentation of the Dalit movement, I will have to work harder. I now have support in Karnataka and Kerala, though, and after the Gujarat polls, I will campaign in Karnataka.
Is there a possibility of a Dalit-Muslim platform?
During the Una struggle, we were welcomed by Muslims and we are working for Dalit-Muslim unity in Gujarat.
But the Muslim situation is much worse (than that of Dalits) — apart from having to be careful that they don't become victims of the (sangh parivar’s) Love Jehad campaign, there is serious unemployment. (They are grappling with) existential issues. It is a battle for survival for them.