Assembly election: Gujarat

The caste factor

Print edition : January 05, 2018

The young Patidar leader Hardik Patel at a road show in Ahmedabad on December 11. Photo: SANTOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

Jignesh Mevani. The seat he won from, Vadgam, was a BJP bastion. Photo: KAMAL SINGH/PTI

Alpesh Thakor, with Rahul Gandhi at the rally in which he joined the Congress in October. He won from Radhanpur against a Thakor candidate fielded by the BJP. Photo: PTI

The Assembly election results have brought navsarjan (rejuvenation) to the Congress party in Gujarat and beyond, the credit for it going mainly to its strategy of building electoral alliances with caste groups.

Among the few indisputable consequences of the just-concluded Assembly election in Gujarat is the forceful return of a peculiar form of identity politics. While religious identity, in the form of aggressive Hindutva, was the dominant tool for mobilising voters during the past two decades, this election campaign reintroduced an old form of identity politics first pushed by the Congress during the Assembly elections in 1980. The 2017 election results, declared on December 18, show that this form of identity politics still has wide acceptance in the State even if Hindutva continues to dominate.

“KHAM-style politics has been revived in this election.” This was the common refrain in a section of long-time Gujarat-based election watchers and researchers as they spoke to Frontline, even if they differed in detail, on the day the results came out. The acronym KHAM denotes an electoral alliance of the Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim communities, first framed by the Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki before the 1980 Assembly election with great success. Explaining how KHAM reflects in the 2017 Assembly election results, Mahashweta Jani, a researcher with long experience of working on pre- and post-election surveys for the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), said: “The Congress has done well among Dalit, OBC [Other Backward Classes] and tribal voters.” She said that the increase in the Congress’ tally had come predominantly from rural seats, especially those where Dalits and tribal people are numerically strong. While 6.7 per cent of Gujarat’s population is identified as Dalit or Scheduled Caste (S.C.), 14.7 per cent is identified as tribal or Scheduled Tribe (S.T.).

Dr Bhanu Parmar, a professor based in Anand who has been a part of the surveys conducted by the CSDS, differed slightly. He also believed caste-based mobilisation played a critical role in the results, but he felt there was an alliance of different communities this time. Specifically, he had in mind the role of the Patidars who were not a part of the KHAM and, in fact, stood in opposition to it in the 1980s.

This time, the Congress party banked predominantly on the mobilisation by Hardik Patel and his outfit, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), for the support of more than 12 per cent of Patel community voters who had been voting for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for decades but were apparently drifting away from it. Their votes did have an impact on the results, but not to the extent desired by the Congress. In fact, urban Patel votes appear to have gone in favour of the BJP. In the context of the 2017 elections, the reference to “KHAM style” politics may, in a broader sense, be taken to include the caste-based mobilisations led by the three young community leaders, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. However, this identity politics has emerged at a time when issues of rural-urban divide and class are also potent. Hence it was raised much more overtly during the 2017 election campaign. The consequences were apparent in the results.

As Mahashweta Jani pointed out, Hardik Patel’s campaign was especially effective in rural Gujarat, where Patel farmers growing cotton and groundnut could not be swayed by claims of “vikas” (development). This was clear in the Congress’ impressive showing in the Saurashtra-Kutch region, where more than half of Gujarat’s Patel community seats are located. It won 30 of the region’s 54 seats, while the BJP won 23. The one remaining seat went to an independent candidate.

In Mahashweta Jani’s reckoning, the co-existence of issues of caste and profession affected the campaign and the results: “If you look closely, he [Hardik Patel] campaigned mostly in Saurashtra. He spoke a lot about farmers, especially about them not getting supportive rates. In Saurashtra, cotton and groundnut farmers have played a big role [in victories for Congress]. Apart from being Patidars, they are also farmers. But their counterparts in cities voted BJP. Even Surat, for instance, where diamond traders protested against the Goods and Services Tax, the BJP won. So there was no en masse voting by Patels, but a significant chunk of the community’s vote went away from the BJP and towards the Congress.”

Curiously, though, as the CSDS’ third pre-election report about Gujarat’s voting preferences shows, Hardik Patel’s popularity was progressively decreasing until late November while Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani were improving upon their own popularity steadily.

This also fuelled the Congress party’s campaign, which appears to have improved upon support from Dalit voters. Data from the Election Commission about the 13 reserved S.C. constituencies in Gujarat show that this time the BJP won seven of them, the Congress won five and Jignesh Mevani, who contested as an independent candidate backed by the Congress, won the Vadgam seat. This is a significant improvement for the Congress, which had won relatively fewer S.C. seats in the 2012 elections. Mahashweta Jani said: “On a larger scale, Dalits have always been committed voters of the Congress party. It’s not necessary that winning Dalit seats alone indicates support from Dalit voters, as people from the Other Backward Classes and Muslim communities also contribute to votes in these [reserved] constituencies. However, Dalit community voters in general constituencies have also voted Congress. This was evident during our multiple surveys before the election and is now reflected in the results, too.”

Clearly, the Congress benefited by the KHAM-like strategy to some extent, but it could not repeat the 1980 performance. Also, the BJP conducted its own social engineering among castes with non-Thakor OBC groups backing the saffron party in a significant manner. For instance, Dr Bhanu Parmar cited how North Gujarat’s Chaudhary community vote was split between the Congress and the BJP in the past. This time, he reckoned, owing to the rise in the Thakor community’s support for the Congress, the Chaudhary community shifted allegiance en bloc to the BJP.

Notwithstanding its defeat, the Congress is now being seen as a serious electoral force in Gujarat with a potential to perform the role of a strong opposition party in the Assembly where the BJP reigned virtually unchallenged in the past two decades. Parmar said: “The Congress party’s slogan was about bringing navsarjan to Gujarat, it seems it is the party’s State unit which has got navsarjan.” A significant role in this “navsarjan” was played by the alliance of the three new and young caste leaders who campaigned aggressively against the ruling party.

With inputs from Anupama Katakam