The caste question

Caste on top

Print edition : December 08, 2017

A section of the huge crowd that gathered to hear PAAS leader Hardik Patel speak, at Himatnagar in January. Photo: VIJAY SONEJI

Caste has always been important in Gujarat’s electoral politics. Now, with several social groups speaking up for their rights and against perceived injustices, caste equations have infused uncertainty into the 2017 Assembly elections.

There is an excitement and energy in Gujarat that was not seen in the past Assembly elections. The difference this time appears to be the heightened political activism of communities that may play a critical role in deciding the fate of the two national parties contesting the elections. Patidars (Patels), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits appear to be setting the agenda, and this might override all other factors. They all appear determined to dethrone the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has repeatedly let them down for two decades.

The BJP and the Congress have been speaking about jobs and development during their campaigns, but closer to election day it seems to be boiling down to caste politics. The Patidar agitation over the past two years and the horrific atrocities against Dalits have spurred young leaders of these communities to raise their voices and make their demands heard. No such voices were heard in 2012.

Political analysts see a shift from communal polarisation to fragmentation on caste lines. “The BJP has been in power since 1998. They came on the plank of Hindu unity. We are seeing that unity disintegrate in this election,” said Achyut Yagnik, a political commentator and founder of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action in Ahmedabad. “The difference is that in 2014 the Patidars were the backbone of the BJP. Today, a good percentage of them are backing Hardik Patel, who is vowing to bring them down.”

“Earlier some castes had weightage owing to their dominance; this time every caste thinks it is independent and dominant,” said Martin Macwan from the Navsarjan Trust, a human rights organisation focussing on Dalit rights in Gujarat. “For other castes such as Patidars and Thakors, their new demands are motivating them; as for Dalits and tribal people, it is the ruling party’s unkept promises that motivate them. Another interesting aspect is, unlike in the case of other caste groups, Dalits and tribal people, who were earlier fragmented into sub-castes and sub-ethnic identities, are breaking boundaries, joining together and forming ‘organised’ vote banks.”

This is a new phenomenon, though in Gujarat caste and communal identities have always played significant roles in elections. In 1980, the Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki came up with the concept of KHAM—Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim—and led the Congress to power by focussing on these communities. The Congress still uses the formula. Patels and Brahmins, alienated by the KHAM, naturally allied with the BJP. The equation held until the recent past, but now the situation seems to be changing.

The development plank, on which the BJP had gained so much mileage, appears to have backfired in this election. Every community, especially Patidars, has been hit by the scarcity of jobs, low agricultural prices and the general economic slowdown. The Patidars, in particular, feel let down by the party they once supported. With a large percentage of small traders, they have been hit hard by demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST). “Neither Hindutva nor development got us anywhere,” said Mahesh Patel, who runs a stationery shop in Ahmedabad.

However, a Muslim social worker in Ahmedabad said: “The only thing to bear in mind is that one must never forget Gujarat is the laboratory for Hindutva. At the end of the day, even the most disenchanted Patel would rather vote for a ‘Hindu’ party than a party that represents Muslims and Dalits. We will have to see if all this elaborate talk translates to votes.” According to a Lokniti-CSDS pre-election survey, OBC and Dalit voters, who traditionally voted for the Congress but had crossed over to the BJP in 2012 and 2014, have gradually started returning to the Congress. This could change the game. A look at a few key communities gives an idea of just how significant they will be in the 2017 election.

Patidars

Patidars constitute the backbone of the BJP. Currently they are an unhappy lot as they say the BJP has not come good on promises or backed their demand for reservation. A large section, led by Hardik Patel and his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), has declared that it will not vote in favour of the BJP. By all indications, the BJP does not take the threat posed by the Patidar agitation lightly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who typically remains silent on violence and controversies, responded to the rioting that broke out in Gujarat following Hardik Patel’s Kranti rally in August 2015. Speaking in Gujarati on television, he said, with a downcast expression: “We have always believed that the development of the State is possible only if we all walk together and stay united. It is my appeal to my brothers and sisters that the occasion calls for a single mantra—peace. Each and every issue can be resolved through talks.”

In an attempt to placate the community, the State government introduced a 10 per cent quota for economically backward classes among Patidars, but the Gujarat High Court squashed that proposal. Other efforts, such as a Rs.700-crore package on education and social welfare schemes, did not see fruition. Eventually, Hardik Patel started getting targeted. He was arrested under charges of sedition and was banished from Gujarat for months. Sadly for the BJP, he is back in action.

Patidars constitute 15 per cent of Gujarat’s population and are the most influential caste in the State. Political observers say that they are divided in their voting patterns. There are four sub-castes of Patidars—Leuva, Kadva, Anjana and Satpanthi. Leuvas are more economically well-off, while Kadvas are less so. Leuvas usually vote for the BJP. Kadvas have said this time that they are with Hardik Patel; they support his demand for reservation. There is also a rural-urban difference. The urbanised middle-income Patels are considered to be the BJP’s support base.

Central Gujarat, particularly the Patel-dominated Kheda district, is expected to vote BJP. But the outcome is uncertain in Saurashtra, where a large number of Patidars are struggling to cope with agricultural distress and the economic slowdown. Fifty-two of the State’s 182 Assembly seats are in Saurashtra. Hardik Patel has been camping in the region and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi spent three days touring the districts.

Patidars were traditionally agriculturists but later ventured into trade and manufacturing. Patidars have successfully built Gujarat’s small- and medium-scale industry, and the State owes its industrial progress largely to the community. But Patidars did not benefit from reservation because they came to be seen as an upper caste, which caused resentment among their youth. “We are well educated but cannot get into professional courses. You will find a Patel graduate with 90 per cent marks working in a grocery shop or in the fields. Naturally, we are angry. The government promised jobs, but where are those lakhs of jobs?” Mahesh Patel said.

Yagnik said: “The much-touted Gujarat development model did not work or favour them. That is why they are raising their voices. They do not vote as one. This year the vote will be split.”

Dalits & Other backward classes

In July 2016, four young Dalit men were tied up and thrashed by a bunch of self-professed gau rakshaks (cow protecters) for skinning a dead cow in Una town of Gir Somnath district. The incident proved a turning point for the community. What began as a protest against the beatings and atrocities against Dalits developed into a movement with young Dalits coming out in their thousands to speak out against discrimination and persecution. Jignesh Mevani, a lawyer and activist who had been fighting for Dalit land rights, became the face of the protest. He and his supporters decided that the 7 per cent Dalit population would become relevant in this election.

Macwan said: “I think post-Una, Dalit youths have become active, constructive, rational and politically aware. Never before has there been such a hectic debate at all levels among Dalit youths, especially on issues of political rights. The expression of frustration directed at the BJP in the interior-most villages is noticeable.”

The crime rate relating to atrocities against the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) in Gujarat was 32.5 per cent in 2016, against the national average of 20.4 per cent, according to government data. The State’s conviction rate for atrocities against S.Cs was 4.7 per cent in 2016, substantially below the national average of 27.3 per cent. After the Una beating, there have been incidents of Dalits being beaten for wearing a moustache and lynched for watching the dandiya (a traditional Gujarati dance). Jignesh Mevani says that the situation is miserable and it is up to educated Dalit youths to fight this battle.

Macwan said that a population already struggling for survival had not taken kindly to issues such as unemployment, political patronage to perpetrators of caste violence, below-poverty-line (BPL) card and widow pension anomalies; corruption, and long queues for caste/income certificates. The hardships of ragpickers, vegetable vendors, migrant labourers, the fishing community, salt-makers and people working for low-paid jobs in the private sector had never been in the news. Now all these groups are voicing their grievances. “Never before have I heard such abuse towards a Prime Minister,” Macwan said.

Dalits are divided into subgroups, geographically spread across the State, and they do not vote en bloc. Largely Congress supporters, the community did see a shift to the BJP in 2012, for lack of other options. Among the 13 seats reserved for S.Cs, the BJP won 10 and the Congress three.

Jignesh Mevani categorically rules out joining a political party or even aligning with one. He says that his movement’s “only aim is to bring down the BJP which is anti-Dalit”. Since the Dalits are not in a position to influence the election by themselves, he says the only way is to support anti-BJP groups. Meanwhile, the Bahujan Samaj Party has announced its intention to field candidates and is open to an alliance. The Congress has not yet agreed to a seat-sharing formula.

The OBC, S.C. and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) communities comprise over 60 per cent of Gujarat’s population. There are 146 socially and economically backward classes in Gujarat. The OBCs make up 40-45 per cent of the 70 per cent. These are generalised numbers from the Gujarat government website as caste does not feature in the census count. Political commentators say the OBC bloc has voted BJP in the past few elections though earlier it was a Congress support base. Since OBCs constituted a significant chunk, the BJP would give the party ticket to many OBC candidates in the hope of swaying the vote, Yagnik said. Again there are so many communities within the OBC segment and OBC voters often vote specifically for their caste. This makes them an unpredictable vote bank in this election.

That OSS (OBC, S.C. and S.T.) Ekta Manch leader Alpesh Thakor has joined the Congress is a major cause for worry to the BJP. Not only does the Thakor community make up 20 to 25 per cent of the OBC bloc, but Alpesh Thakor has developed a massive grass-roots network that is apparently deeply loyal to him. He has led an anti-liquor campaign and has taken up issues such as unemployment and farm distress. He apparently aligned with the Congress after he personally conducted a survey in his community to see what their issues were and where the discontentment lay. The Thakors have been Congress voters and, like the other communitues, were tired of the BJP’s false promises.

Congress leaders claim that Alpesh Thakor’s joining will impact electoral support in the north Gujarat districts of Sabarkantha, Banaskantha, Kheda, Mehsana, Anand, Patan, Gandhinagar and Aravalli.

Muslims & Adivasis

Ten per cent of Gujarat’s six-crore population are Muslims. Although not an insignificant number, they are resigned to being second-class citizens with no voice, says Shamshad Pathan, an advocate and activist working on the riot cases. “We have been asked why there are no young leaders emerging from our community. The fear is so deep now that if anyone tries to make a noise, they are either immediately arrested or several charges are heaped on them that the rest of their lives they will be fighting cases.”

In the last election, the Congress gave just three seats to Muslim candidates. “This time, our leaders have told them that if there is no proper distribution there could be a backlash. Muslims are perhaps the worst placed in Gujarat. They question why they should go with the Congress, which has been completely neglectful and apathetic. I believe Rahul Gandhi visiting temples in an attempt to appease the Patels has exacerbated the hurt,” said Hanif Lakdawala, who runs the Sanchetana Trust in Ahmedabad. “We don’t get support from any political party.”

Interestingly, in recent years a few Muslim sects such as the Shias, Dawoodi Bohras and Khojas have shown an inclination to back the BJP, with some members even joining the party. Sunnis, who comprise the bulk of Gujarati Muslims, remain with the Congress. “We cannot vote the BJP. It is anti-Muslim. I do not trust these people who have joined them. They have personal interests and will do nothing for the community,” said Rahila Hussain, a survivor from the 2002 riots.

The saffronisation of the tribal belt is almost complete, says Shamshad Pathan. The BJP, along with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, has worked hard in the tribal belt and is almost certain to gain seats there. In 2012, 16 of the 27 reserved seats were won by the Congress, the BJP got 10, and one seat went to the Janata Dal (United). The 15 per cent Adivasis population is part of the KHAM composition and has traditionally voted the Congress. However, the BJP has been making inroads into the section over the past decade. Usually, the tribal villages voted on the lines of what their elders decided, said a social worker.

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