State of Play

The BJP faces its next big electoral challenge, in Gujarat, later this year

The upper-caste Patels, or Patidars, once dominated Gujarat politics. The community found its position weakened in the 1980s, after the Congress stitched together the KHAM, (Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim) alliance to win power. sam panthaky / afp / getty images
01 March, 2017

On 7 February 2017, the chief minister of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani, flagged off the Adivasi Vikas Gaurav Yatra—a political march promising development and promoting Adivasi pride—from the village and pilgrimage site of Unai, in the southern district of Tapi. At the function, the party’s state unit president Jitu Vaghani declared that the yatra was intended to “win hearts and not votes.” But with Gujarat assembly elections scheduled for later this year, there was little doubt that the BJP was making a concerted play for the Adivasi vote.

Adivasis comprise more than 14 percent of the state’s population, and are decisive voters in the 27 assembly constituencies in eastern Gujarat. Since the late 1990s, Hindutva groups, particularly the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, have made systematic efforts to woo them, and have thus ensured that the region has largely been a BJP bastion.

Over 12 days, the yatra covered 50 talukas in the 15 districts of the Adivasi belt. The BJP’s leaders and cadres visited Adivasis in their homes, and shared meals with them. One of the party’s strategies was to apprise the community of the benefits of a rule under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. The rule, whose implementation Rupani had cleared, granted them rights over minor forest produce and minerals as a source of income, and stood to benefit people across 4,503 gram sabhas.

The great challenge before the party, however, lies beyond the Adivasi belt, in the hills and plains of north Gujarat and the vast Saurashtra and Kutch peninsulas, where it must win over Patels, Dalits and members of the other backward classes, or OBCs. The economically and politically influential Patels, or Patidars, from north Gujarat and Saurashtra have been up in arms against the government, demanding educational and job quotas. Dalits, meanwhile, have mobilised in reaction to a July 2016 incident in the city of Una, where gau rakshaks, or cow-protection vigilantes, flogged four Dalits for skinning a dead cow. These two agitations have also given impetus to a third group of protestors, the OBCs, who fear that the Patels’ demand for reservations could eat into existing quotas for themselves. “Given the political uncertainties, the tribal belt is one core area the BJP cannot afford to lose,” a senior leader of the BJP state unit told me. “The party has consistently won around 20 of the 27 seats here since 1995.”

Yamal Vyas, a senior BJP leader, was confident about the party’s prospects when I spoke to him in February. “If elections were to be held immediately after the announcement of results in the five states where assembly polls are underway, we are confident we will win a comfortable majority in Gujarat,” he said. But Achyut Yagnik, an author and commentator on Gujarat, contested Vyas’s forecast, saying that the BJP would, at best, emerge as the single-largest party in the state.

Among the things that Rupani has to grapple with are struggles within the party. These have increased manifold since Narendra Modi—along with his lieutenant Amit Shah, now the BJP president—ascended to the national stage. Modi passed Gujarat’s chief ministerial baton on to Anandiben Patel, who resigned in August last year.

A BJP politician who served on her cabinet, told me that Patel’s exit was planned by Shah, her political rival, who wanted to gain greater control over the state. To get Modi’s approval, the politician said, Shah told him, “Saheb, jeetvani guarantee hu apu chu. Badhu ekvaar mara par chodi do” (Just leave it to me, I guarantee a win in the election). But even after her ouster, Patel continued to exert considerable influence over the party’s affairs in Gujarat.

Vyas and Yagnik were in agreement that the Congress, the main opposition party in the state, is a divided house. It is led by Bharatsinh Solanki, a minister in the last national government and the son of the former chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki. “Bharat lacks his father’s charisma and political acumen,” Yagnik said. “Besides, the Congress is not well prepared for elections. It has structural weaknesses and is riven with factionalism.” Bharatsinh, a top state leader of the Congress told me, is only a titular head, and his authority as state chief is regularly undermined by his predecessors Arjun Modhwadia and Siddharth Patel, the party spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil, and the leader of opposition in the state assembly, Shankersinh Vaghela.

Despite its organisational weaknesses, the Congress was galvanised by the news that several local BJP leaders were among ten people arrested on 7 February in a gang-rape case in Naliya taluka of Kutch. The men, among them the convenor of the BJP’s OBC cell, Shantilal Solanki, are alleged to have repeatedly raped a woman from Mumbai who had returned to her native village in August 2015. They are also alleged to have filmed their acts and blackmailed her by threatening to circulate the clips. “The Naliya case is the last thing we wanted,” a senior BJP leader in Ahmedabad told me. “This would not have happened if Modi had been around. With his no-nonsense approach, he always kept the party rank and file on a tight leash.” The Congress launched aggressive protests in reaction to the BJP leaders’ alleged crimes, including one protest outside the house of Modi’s mother.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s state unit also attacked the BJP over the arrests. On top of that, the party has made a strong pitch for the support of the Patel community. In October, Arvind Kejriwal, the AAP leader and Delhi chief minister, addressed a public gathering in the Patel-dominated village of Piludra, in north Gujarat. “I salute your courage. I came to know that the Patidar agitation originated from this village,” Kejriwal said. “Now, I request you to start another movement to clean the politics of Gujarat from this village. We all have to come together to fight against corruption and clean Gujarat’s politics.”

Patels comprised just over 12 percent of the state’s population according to the 1931 census—the last year for which official numbers are available. Over the last three decades, their allegiance has swung between the Congress and the BJP. Patels dominated Gujarat’s politics since Independence, but were dislodged from their position at the centre of power beginning in 1980. That year, the Congress, under Madhavsinh Solanki, adopted the KHAM formula—uniting Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims—and ended the upper-castes’ monopoly on power with sweeping victories in both assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Yagnik recalled that, at this time, for the first time in history, Gujarat did not have a single Patel minister of cabinet rank.

The dominant castes, including Brahmins, Vaniyas and Patels, reacted sharply, and the Sangh Parivar, from which the BJP emerged, joined forces with them in the 1980s. But Yagnik pointed out that that though “the Patidars have been the backbone of the BJP since 1985,” their support for the party had begun to wane even before their 2015 agitation. “The Gujarat development model of Narendra Modi supported big industries, but failed to meet the aspirations of an agrarian community like the Patidars,” he said. “With small and medium industries”—a sector dominated by Patels—“facing a downturn, youth finding it difficult to get admissions to professional courses or being denied government jobs, Patidars feel deprived and angry.”

The Congress has benefitted from this disenchantment. In civic-body elections in December 2015, the BJP performed significantly worse than in it had in previous years, especially in rural areas. Just a year and a half after the BJP won every Lok Sabha seat from Gujarat in the 2014 general election, the Congress won 24 district panchayats to the BJP’s six. The BJP managed to retain power over six municipal corporations, but even in the elections for those, its victory margins came down substantially.

The BJP has yet to pull its organisation together after that setback. In August 2016, Vaghani, a 46-year-old Leuva Patel from Bhavnagar, in Saurasthra, was appointed the party’s state president, taking over from Rupani. The post of Rupani’s deputy chief minister went to Nitin Patel, a Kadva Patel from north Gujarat. The party felt these appointments would assuage the two prominent sub-castes of Patidars, which together account for around 40 of the BJP’s 121 current representatives in the Gujarat legislative assembly. But since Vaghani’s appointment to head the state unit, no more office bearers have been named, leaving much of the organisation directionless.

The political direction of the Patidar community is likely to be heavily influenced by Hardik Patel, the 23-year-old who spearheaded the 2015 agitation. Patel was arrested in 2015 and charged with sedition, before being exiled from the state for six months in July 2016. In January, he returned with a single-point agenda: to remove the BJP from power. Patel himself is too young to contest elections, but observers are watching to see which party he might align with.

His visit to Mumbai on 7 February 2017 caused a minor stir after the Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray declared him the party’s face in Gujarat. But within three days, Patel denied the news, telling the media in Ahmedabad that he had visited Thackeray “to respect the invitation I was extended. I am too young to contest elections and my only aim is to get the benefit of reservation for my community.”

The BJP has other young challengers to worry about too. Even as the party’s yatra traversed the Adivasi belt, Jignesh Mevani, a 35-year lawyer and activist from Ahmedabad, announced a campaign to expose the ruling government’s failure to provide land to Adivasis under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Mevani rose to prominence in the wake of the Una incident by bringing together several Dalit and non-Dalit organisations. For the new campaign, Mevani’s Dalit-rights organisation, the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, forged ties with the Adivasi Kisan Sangharsh Morcha, an Adivasi land-rights organisation in south Gujarat. Mevani has also formed links with Hardik Patel’s movement, to the consternation of some Dalit and Adivasi activists who believe that Patel demands for reservations could hurt the reservations they currently enjoy themselves.

The BJP and Congress are also keenly watching the OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, of the Gujarat Kshatriya-Thakor Sena. The organisation, which was formed five years ago and has 650,000 members, held a massive convention against alcoholism at Ahmedabad in January 2016. There, Thakor declared that the OBC and Kshatriya communities would decide who became the state’s next chief minister. Thakor, who is opposed to the Patidars’ demand for quota, has also founded the OSS (OBC, ST, SC) Ekta Manch, aiming to appeal to a larger spectrum of communities including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Thakor denies allegiance to any party, but he has political ambitions and the right connections. The January 2016 convention featured video messages from Anandiben Patel, then still the chief minister, and Solanki, both expressing support for his anti-alcoholism initiative. Thakor’s father, Khodaji, is the current head of the Congress’s Ahmedabad district unit, but was earlier with the BJP. Thakor “could go either way,” the former AAP leader and political observer Sukhdev Patel said. “He has ties with both the parties.”

A top BJP leader recounted that Thakor earlier headed the Shakti Dal, a cadre of volunteers launched by the Congress’s Shankersinh Vaghela in 2003 to counter the efforts of the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, both parts of the Sangh Parivar. It was disbanded within months because the Congress felt that such an outfit went against the party’s culture, and could develop into a force personally loyal to Vaghela. But, the BJP leader added, the bond between Alpesh and Vaghela remains strong. “If Shankersinh Vaghela is its CM candidate, Alpesh could throw his weight with Congress,” the leader said.