IDENTITY POLITICS: NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
Local OBC leader is a big hit in Thakore community in Gujarat, reports
Identity politics is staging a return in Gujarat with both the Patel and Thakore community steadily mobilizing their members, ostensibly on social causes, but with the political agenda barely concealed.
A lot has already been written about the meteoric rise of Hardik Patel but the parallel case of Alpesh Thakore has been almost as fast and systematic. In the last few months, Thakore has been making a name for himself campaigning for de-addiction and spreading education in his community and in the process tightening his grip over the community.
Son of a local Congress leader, Alpesh (40) launched his Vyasanmukti Abhiyan (de-addiction drive) at a mega rally on January 26 in Ahmedabad and since then his Thakore Sena claims it has carried out hundreds of Janta raids on illegal liquor dens. Alpesh says the number could be around 1700. Thakore makes no bones admitting that the social cause is only a façade for his political agenda. “Come 2017, we will decide who the Chief Minister of Gujarat will be,” he says.
The Thakore Sena has spread across 9000 villages in Gujarat and the pan-community OBC SC ST Ekta Manch has covered 3000 more villages, he claims. “We intend to cover all 18,000 villages of Gujarat and form samitis,” Alpesh says.
Juxtapose this with the massive Patidar rally in Ahmedabad on August 25 last and the violence that followed and the matrix assumes a sinister tone. When the state government incarcerated Patidar leader Hardik Patel and his associates, anger erupted across the community. Whi le t he T h a kor e s h ave t hei r Vyasanmukti Abhiyan, the Patidar community has been busy mobilizing itself across Saurashtra through Ekta Yatra and other programmes. “We are working in rural areas and reaching out to a maximum number of people. Only sporadically we hold big events like the one we had in Mehsana recently where we had a women’s meet,” says Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) spokesperson Varun Patel.
With both communities on the ascendant, there are rising concerns of a possible confrontation. “Earlier, the community, despite its large numbers, avoided confrontations with the police, but now equations are changing and the erosion of fear for law enforcing agency does not auger too well for the state polity,” says a senior leader of BJP, who preferred to remain anonymous. “The direction of these Janta raids are getting confrontational and can lead to major lawlessness in the state in days to come,” he adds.
On the surface, both national parties the BJP and the Congress endorse the drive against illegal liquor dens. “Whenever someone does something good for the society, we are all for it. The drive for deaddiction is a good move for the community and we shall in no way put a hurdle to that,” said Gujarat BJP vice president IK Jadeja.
But Alpesh has another fight on his hands. “Most of these liquor dens are run by people from our community. While the small guys are gradually giving up, the big ones are yet to come around,” he admits. Negotiating with the big guns has not always been easy and once in a while violent clashes break out. Only recently, Thakore Sena had blocked a highway in North Gujarat after its activists were attacked by a local bootlegger belonging to the Thakore community itself. But these skirmishes are helping Alpesh and his men flex their muscles more aggressively.
The popularity of his drive has seen the Patidars too jump into the de-addiction campaign. But the recently concluded Ekta Yatra in Saurashtra region barely concealed community mobilization ahead of the 2017 election. Last year, the Patidars showed their anger by voting against the BJP in the local bodies’ elections. Congress won 22 of the 31 district panchayats and 126 of 230 taluka panchayats, leaving six district panchayats and 65 taluka panchayats for BJP. Earlier, BJP held 30 of 31 district panchayats and 194 of 220 taluka panchayats.
Now the BJP is trying to regain lost ground. The controversial speech of JNU student leader Umar Khalid was played out at a couple of farmer rallies in the state recently to whip up nationalist fervour and come April 6, the foundation day of the party, BJP will take out Bharat Mata Gaurav Kooch across 18 places in the state.
Caste engineering by Congress stalwart Madhavsinh Solanki brought together the Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslims (KHAM) together helping the Congress register its biggest ever electoral win in the history of Gujarat Assembly in 1985. The price of the victory was the parting of ways with the powerful Patels.
Recently, to regai n t he support of Patidars, Congress not only introduced a private member’s bill seeking 20 percent reservation for extremely backward castes during the budget session, but MLAs entered the House wearing caps that said ‘Jai Sardar Jai Patidar’. They also offered lollypops to Patel ministers, mocking the package announced by the Chief Minister to pacify the agitators.
“Of course there is strong resurgence of caste based identity politics in Gujarat,” says Ahmedabad based writer and academician Achyut Yagnik. He said it was ironic that this has happened at a time the lines dividing the castes were beginning to get blurred due to rapid urbanization in the state, he adds. “So far the politics has not been confrontational, but given the fact that the Patidars in rural areas are largely land owners while the Thakores and others are largely landless workers any misadventure from either side can turn the situation confrontational and that is not a nice possibility to think about,” he cautions.