A day after Alpesh Thakor shared the stage with Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Gandhinagar, around two dozen supporters wait outside his small office in north Ahmedabad, in the hope that he will address them. Thakor, who founded the Kshatriya Thakor Sena and, later, the OBC, SC, ST Ekta Manch (OSS), is all over the news after he came back to the Congress at the rally, giving the party a huge leg-up ahead of the Gujarat assembly election. (He had been with the Congress till 2011.)
With an iMac adorning his desk and his iPhone hardly catching a break, the goateed 41-year-old leader from the Thakor community keeps turning his head to catch a glimpse of a Gujarati news channel on a television mounted on the wall. He says the OSS has been preparing for the election, to be held on December 9 and 14, for a year now. The organisation has established its presence at the polling-booth level in 108 of the 182 assembly constituencies in the state. “In 77 constituencies, our booth management is 100% complete.” He believes this will help the Congress win more than 125 seats. That is more than what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party won in 2007 and 2012 — 117 and 115 respectively.
A win here will revive the sagging fortunes of the Congress as it prepares to retain Karnataka next year and take on the BJP in the 2019 general election. A trinity of young Turks — Thakor, Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani — is central to the Congress’s plans. They are all vehemently opposed to the BJP and can dictate how their respective communities vote. Hardik has offered to support the Congress if it supports their demand for reservation and Mevani has said that while he will not join the Congress, Dalits will vote for the party (See Mevani interview, “Dalit Votes Will Go to Congress in Gujarat”).
A senior Congress leader of the state, requesting anonymity, says Patel and Mevani do not want to lose their identity by joining the party. “But they will give subtle messages to voters in favour of the Congress.” Dalits make up 7% of Gujarat’s population, and Patidars 12%. Thakor has been raising issues like unemployment, lax implementation of Gujarat’s prohibition law and farmers’ loans for a few years now. But he shot to fame when Patidars, an influential community also known as Patels, started demanding the status of Other Backward Classes (OBC) to avail of quotas in government jobs and educational institutes in 2015. Thakor had then opposed reservation for Patidars, as that would eat into the share of the existing 146 castes categorised under OBC.
Hardik Patel, now 24, was the face of the Patidar movement, which at times turned violent, claiming a dozen lives in August 2015. He spent nine months in jail on sedition charges before being released in July 2016.
Another setback to the BJP government came in the form of large-scale protests by Dalits after four members of the community were publicly stripped and flogged in Una in south Gujarat in July 2016. Jignesh Mevani, a lawyer and activist, spearheaded the protests. The unrest was one of the reasons the then chief minister Anandiben Patel had to resign the following month. Though Patidars hoped another one of their own, Nitin Patel, would replace her, the BJP made Vijay Rupani, a Jain, the chief minister, with Nitin being made his deputy.
United by their opposition to the BJP, the three leaders are “making conscious efforts to not fight with each other,” according to Hari Desai, a senior journalist. Mevani, 36, has said he will work to dethrone the BJP. Hardik Patil echoes him: “Our aim is to defeat the BJP. If that means the Congress benefits, we don’t care.”
He told ET Magazine on Monday that he would take a call on supporting the Congress based on their stance on the Patidar reservation and farmers’ loan waiver issues. On Saturday, he tweeted that Congress should clarify its stand on granting constitutional reservation to Patidars by November 3, 2017, or else there will be incidents like the one at Amit Shah’s rally in Surat.
It is interesting that Patels who now want to be included in the OBC category were at the forefront of anti-reservation protests in 1981 and 1985, after the Congress successfully executed its KHAM strategy — Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim — under the leadership of Madhavsinh Solanki, whose son Bharatsinh is the current state president of the Congress. Madhavsinh led the Congress to comprehensive wins in 1980 and 1985, with the Congress winning 141 and 149 seats respectively, the highest ever for a party in the state. As a result of KHAM, the upper castes — Patidars, Brahmins and Baniyas — turned to the BJP, which united other castes too under the Hindutva plank in the 1990s. The BJP first came to power on its own in 1995. Its best performance was in 2002, the year of the Godhra riots, when it won 127 seats. In the 2014 general elections, it swept the state, winning all 26 seats.
Harshad Patel, a state BJP spokesperson, says the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, which Hardik heads, is against the BJP, but not the Patidar community as a whole. The Congress has alleged snooping by the Gujarat Police and intelligence agencies after CCTV footage of Hardik in the hotel where Rahul Gandhi was staying was leaked to the media; the state government has denied it. The Election Commission has also come in for criticism after it delayed the announcement of polling dates for Gujarat, which the opposition alleged was to help the governments at the Centre and in Gujarat inaugurate projects and dole out sops to voters, which would not be possible after the announcement.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat between 2001 and 2014, has visited Gujarat three times this month. Two visits came after the Election Commission announced the polling dates for Himachal Pradesh assembly election on October 12, but one of them was nonofficial. On October 22, he kicked off a bunch of projects, including a Rs 650 crore roll-on-roll-off ferry service between Ghogha in Bhavnagar district and Dahej in Bharuch district, and housing projects, water supply schemes and other infrastructure projects in Vadodara. (Modi had in September unveiled the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada.)
A day before the EC revealed the dates for the Gujarat polls, the Rupani government had announced a 50% raise in incentives given to women health workers; waived the goods and services tax (GST) on micro irrigation equipment; and raised the income ceiling for OBC, Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) families eligible for state-funded scholarships.
Vidyut Joshi, a sociologist, says Modi’s repeated visits betray a sense of desperation. “He looks to be fatigued and there were not many people at his Vadodara roadshow.”
He adds that this election is the Congress’s best chance in years, but it does not have the organisational strength to match the BJP. “Congress only has leaders in Gujarat, not workers.” Joshi says the controversy surrounding the alleged substantial rise in the revenues of a company owned by BJP president Amit Shah’s son Jay in 2015-16 is a non-issue in the assembly polls. He, however, does not expect the BJP tally to cross double-digits, a far cry from Amit Shah’s target of 150 seats. The BJP needs to win only 92 seats to form the government.
A recent opinion poll of 6,000 respondents by Times Now-VMR projected the BJP winning 118-134 seats, a better performance than in 2012, and the Congress taking just 49-61 constituencies. Another opinion poll, by India Today-Axis My India, also pointed to a BJP victory. The survey, which had over 18,240 respondents, gave the BJP 115-125 seats and the Congress 57-65.
The BJP’s Harshad Patel says the party’s campaign is running on a “double engine” of its long reign in Gujarat and three years of Modi rule at the Centre. But the BJP cannot afford to overlook the concerns of traders over GST, which was set in motion before the pain wrought by demonetisation had subsided. Rahul Gandhi has dubbed GST “Gabbar Singh Tax”.
Manoj Agarwal, president of the Federation of Surat Textile Traders’ Associations, says the BJP took it for granted that traders would remain their supporters. “When the BJP won in 2014, we thought we had a government that would listen to us. But after GST, traders are very angry.” He says traders might stay away from voting or back a candidate of their choice; Surat is a key textile and diamond hub.
Arjun Modhwadia, a senior Congress leader, believes Patidars and traders will vote for the Congress in large numbers after three decades. But neither Patidars nor OBC castes will vote as a single bloc, helping the BJP. Fourteen members of the legislative assembly (MLAs), including former chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela, left the Congress in July and August, while the BJP tried in vain to scuttle the re-election of Congress’s Ahmed Patel to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat. All but four of them have joined the BJP. Vaghela, who had in the 1990s switched from the BJP to the Congress by merging his party with the latter, has now formed a third front. It should on paper split the anti-government vote, benefiting the BJP, but Vaghela is believed to be a spent force.