Every Indian election needs a star and a script, and ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his journey as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001, he has been the star and the scriptwriter in the Gujarat election stories of 2002, 2007 and 2012.
This time around, three young political activists — Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor — hope to rewrite the Gujarat 2017 story with the backing of the Congress. But starring in an election narrative is far easier that rewriting the climactic scene.
Their caste mobilisation — Patidars with Mr. Patel, Dalits with Mr. Mevani and a segment of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) with Mr. Thakor — has to crystalise into votes for the Congress, else they will end up as also-starred in the Gujarat story, which has revolved around the same old NaMo theme, with minor changes, for over a decade and a half. It’s important to understand the three leaders, their conflicting caste constituencies and where they stand in these elections to assess their ability to shape the outcome.
A loose association
First, all three rose to fame championing the aspirations of their respective caste constituencies on specific issues: reservation for Patels, OBC consolidation and justice for Dalits. Their movements did not project the Congress as the party that could realise their aspirations.
While Mr. Thakor has joined the Congress, Mr. Patel and Mr. Mevani have only created an anti-BJP platform. Their message is that they are backing the Congress because they are challenging Mr. Modi, not necessarily because it is the solution.
In an election, especially one which is a clear two-party fight with the towering image of a Prime Minister on one side, it’s not enough to state a problem — there needs to be a rallying leader who can promise a solution. Without that, it is difficult to channelise political mobilisation and discontent towards an electoral result.
Second, Mr. Thakor, as a Thakor Kshatriya OBC caste leader who has built his profile as the champion of a section of OBCs in central Gujarat, and Mr. Mevani, as the Dalit voice, only reiterate the Congress’s existing caste constituencies and do not open a new social base for the party. For instance, Mr. Thakor’s father is a Congress leader in Ahmedabad district and the caste he represents has been predominantly with the party.
The former Congress Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki, father of the present State Congress President Bharatsinh Solanki, forged a winning caste alliance towards the end of the 1970s known as KHAM, that is, Kshatriya, Harijan (i.e. Dalit), Adivasi and Muslim. This was to take on the dominant Patel vote in the State which had gravitated away from the Congress, first towards the Janata movement and the late Chimanbhai Patel, and later towards the BJP. Eventually, the Patels became, and remain, the bedrock for the BJP.
Consistent with its caste constituency, the Congress has largely projected strong Kshatriya caste leaders such as Shankarsinh Vaghela, who migrated to the party after failing to sustain his breakaway from the BJP, and Bharatsinh Solanki at the helm of campaigns in the last two decades.
Till Mr. Modi’s arrival in Gujarat, the Congress retained fair parts of the KHAM alliance in central and north Gujarat and the BJP became formidable in Saurashtra, the bastion of the Patels. But when Mr. Modi, an OBC, became Chief Minister from the Patel-dominated party and brought a sharper Hindutva outreach, he broke the Congress’s caste alliance in central and north Gujarat, without diluting the BJP’s core vote base. The Patels continued to get large representation in the State cabinet, but the perception of the party had changed.
In Mr. Mevani’s case, electorally the Dalits are seen to have been predominantly with the Congress. They make up about 7% of the State’s population. Unlike many other States, in Gujarat the population of Scheduled Tribes is much higher than that of the Scheduled Castes, and the Sangh Parivar outfits had successfully wooed large sections of the Scheduled Tribes in areas like Dangs in South Gujarat.
This is why it seems doubtful that Mr. Thakor and Mr. Mevani alone can make a remarkable difference for the Congress. Mr. Patel’s case is different and he is the one chipping away at the BJP’s core Patel vote. But this is not the first time that Patel discontent or rebellion has hit Mr. Modi or the BJP.
Series of rebellions
The first time a full-blown political rebellion to hit Mr. Modi happened was in 2004. Having reiterated his position with a victory in the aftermath of the 2002 riots, the party was stunned when the Congress won 12 out of the 26 seats in the 2004 parliamentary polls. The rebellion against Mr. Modi was led by former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel and had the backing of several senior BJP leaders from the Saurashtra and Kutch regions.
In fact, Mr. Modi had himself become Gujarat Chief Minister in 2001 due to infighting in the party and was appointed as a compromise candidate to keep the factions together. The rest, of course, is history — but till he came, the BJP saw a series of Chief Ministers being toppled.
Patel rebellions have been part of every election story, but none has been strong enough to derail the Modi story. In the run-up to the 2007 elections, several Patel leaders, like Gordhan Zadaphia, Home Minister during the 2002 riots, had launched an open rebellion. Congress leaders even attended campaign meetings of BJP rebels.
The rebels had the blessings of Keshubhai Patel though he remained with the BJP. All that happened was that the BJP’s numbers came down from 127 in 2002 to 117 in 2007.
In 2012, Keshubhai Patel himself quit the BJP to launch the Gujarat Parivartan Party. Again, a consolidation of Patels and a strong interrogation of Mr. Modi’s economic policies were seen. But Mr. Modi returned as Chief Minister with 116 seats and the rebels polled less than 4% of the vote.
This recap is by way of a reality check that neither discontent with Mr. Modi's economic policies nor a Patel rebellion is a new phenomenon in Gujarat. The trouble for the opposition has been that there is no clear candidate or opponent who can consolidate these rumblings into an electoral victory. Instead, such discontent has been used by Patel leaders to pressurise the BJP to get greater representation and sway within the party. It is not yet clinchingly clear that it will be any different in 2017.
Veeraraghav T.M. is a Bangalore-based journalist