In the 1980s, then Gujarat chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki created a vote-catching acronym that worked for the Congress party, KHAM, which sought to address Kshatriyas, Dalits (the acronym was based on their description as “Harijan”), Adivasis and Muslims as one consolidated vote bank. The formula worked, with the party winning 149 of the 182 seats in the Gujarat assembly in 1985. More than 30 years later, Congress leaders are speaking of a KHAP formula, where Muslims have been replaced by Patels, who had once aligned completely with the BJP. But the three young men who are prime interpreters of Gujarat’s maladies have little or nothing to do with the Congress originally. There is Hardik Patel, at 24 too young to contest elections, but leading the powerful Patel community in Gujarat as head of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti; Alpesh Thakor, 40, who is articulating the angst of Kshatriyas/ Thakors and has joined the Congress; and Jignesh Mevani, 36, who is highlighting the dissatisfaction among Dalits and led the Dalit Asmita Yatra after the horrific attack on some young members of his caste in Una in 2016.
At the root of this angst is the politics of grievance. Although Gujarat as a state has shown impressive GDP growth, it has lagged behind in human development indices. A rising tide lifts all boats but not necessarily equally. Though Patels, who form 14 per cent of Gujarat’s population, have benefited from liberalisation, a certain aspirational section feels its growth has been restricted by reservation. Young Hardik, born post-liberalisation, has been able to articulate this longstanding demand best, in the most authentic way possible through 250 rallies since February 2016. As Deputy Editor Uday Mahurkar, a seasoned observer of Gujarat politics, points out, he is able to switch dialects and work crowds, and even overcome attempts to sleaze-shame him with the release of three so-called sex CDs. Mishandling by Anandiben Patel’s government has also contributed to his aura—he has survived ten months of imprisonment and was even externed from the state. Hardik has been able to spin all this as evidence of tanashahi (arrogance), a message that the BJP has unfortunately underlined repeatedly, especially in the insidious way it tried to ensure Ahmed Patel’s defeat in the recent Rajya Sabha re-election.
A large section of Dalits had deserted the Congress for the BJP; the Congress hopes Mevani will bring them back. It is the same with Thakurs and Thakor. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi hopes this rainbow coalition will reinstate the Congress in a state where it last held power 27 years ago. What is happening in Gujarat is symptomatic of what political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot calls the second wave of democracy, which began in the 1970s with the decline of Congress at the Centre. The broadening of social horizons and the deepening of caste affiliations saw the slow demise of an elitedominated politics. In north India, it was evident in the rise of Lalu Yadav’s opposition to caste/ class privilege, in Mulayam Singh Yadav’s peasant-cum-caste identity and in Mayawati’s Dalit power. It is not clear what direction this social transformation will take in Gujarat, but there is no doubt that it has disturbed the BJP’s monolithic marketing of Hindutva.
Elections in Gujarat are significant not only because of the high stakes for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was chief minister for 12 years, but also for BJP president Amit Shah, who is coming off a stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh. In addition, Rahul Gandhi has shown uncommon commitment to the state voters so far. There are important issues at play in this election. Will the caste mobilisation and inevitable anti-incumbency of 22 years in Gujarat overcome the charisma of Modi and his Hindutva-oriented pan-nationalism wrapped in a message of development? Will the outcome give a much-needed boost to the wilting Congress? Results on December 18 will be a harbinger of the way politics will unfold till the next General Election in 2019.