New faces

Three challengers

Print edition : December 08, 2017

Hardik Patel at the Kranti rally on August 25, 2015, in Ahmedabad. Photo: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

Alpesh Thakor, who recently joined the Congress. Photo: Vijay Soneji

In Ahmedabad on August 5, 2016, Jignesh Mevani at the Dalit Asmita Yatra that travelled from Ahmedabad to Una to protest against the assault on four Dalits by people who claimed to be "gau rakshaks". Photo: Vijay Soneji

Three young leaders, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani, determined to dethrone the BJP in Gujarat, have already changed the politics of the State, which has seen unchallenged rule by the party for over two decades.

It is widely predicted that the triumvirate of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani will change the game in Gujarat’s politics. Young, dynamic, ambitious, aggressive and with a common agenda of defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), not only has each of them become a force within his community, but together they are expected to cause an overhaul that is arguably required in a State that has been ruled unchallenged by the BJP for 22 years.

Political observers say this will be the first Assembly election in decades where there is “some contest”. Narendra Modi’s spell, they say, may finally be broken. An interesting combination of factors has shaken things up: energy infused by the three rising leaders and a change in the mood towards the BJP, which until recently had a vice-like grip on the State.

Whether the trio has the heft to pull off a swing will obviously be known once the results are out. After all, the might of national parties should not be underestimated. For now, the threesome’s call is anti-BJP. Alpesh Thakor has joined the Congress. Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani are reluctant to join a party but are informally aligned with the Congress to defeat the BJP.

Hardik Patel leads the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS); Alpesh Thakor, the OSS (Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes) Ekta Manch; and Jignesh Mevani, the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch. None of the organisations is political. Their ideologies and agendas are vastly different. In fact, the PAAS’ stance on reservation clashes with that of Dalits and OBCs. Yet they have put aside their differences to join forces against the BJP and say that they are determined to trounce it in this Assembly election. Each of them has followed his own trajectory. But all three have been able to tap into the discontentment within their respective communities and prove something can be done. Their liberal views, determination to take on the BJP, ability to connect with the people, and independent rise to leadership represent a new political generation.

Hardik Patel

“The lotus will not bloom in 2017,” Hardik Patel said at a rally in 2015, a time when his star was rising. Within a year, internal politics and an arrest under sedition saw him go underground, and there were serious doubts whether the 22-year-old firebrand, who was causing serious problems for the BJP, would rise again.

In mid 2017, Hardik Patel came back fighting. He teamed up with Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani to split the BJP vote. Although there are rumours of his meeting with Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, he has not yet extended open support to the party. But Hardik Patel has expressed satisfaction with the options suggested by the Congress’ Kapil Sibal on how the Congress will grant reservation to Patidars if voted to power.

Hardik Patel’s opponents have hit back at him with what they are trying to sell as a sex scandal. On November 13, less than a month before the elections, a sex tape that allegedly shows Hardik Patel with a woman in a hotel room was leaked on social media. “It is not authentic and is proof of the BJP’s dirty politics,” Hardik Patel said in a tweet. By all accounts, it is. A video such as this definitely shows signs of insecurity, say Hardik Patel’s supporters. He, in all likelihood, will survive the scandal, if there is one. He has already turned it around by saying that the only thing that the tape does is depict women in a bad way. “His ambition is massive,” says a businessman who knows him well. Even if this election does not work out well for him, he has shown that he can be a threat and that he is here to stay.

Hardik Patel may not have the complete support of the Patidars (Patels), who comprise 15 per cent of Gujarat’s population. He does, however, have a significant hold over 70 constituencies and is making an aggressive effort in the Saurashtra belt, where there is a large concentration of Patidars. His strategy is not entirely clear, but the plank of reservation on which he built his campaign appears to have struck a chord with the younger generation of Patels. It was indeed reservation that brought Hardik Patel out of the shadows. As convener of the PAAS, he was responsible for organising a Kranti rally on August 25, 2015, in Ahmedabad. Thousands of Patidar youths gathered in protest against the State government’s reservation policies. They were demanding OBC status for their community, which would entitle Patidars to a quota in government jobs and education. The other demand was for a quota for the economically backward (EBC) within the community.

Unfortunately, the Kranti rally turned ugly when Hardik Patel was arrested: angry supporters burnt buses and vandalised public property. Twelve people were killed in the violence and several hundred were injured. Gujarat came to a standstill, and all major cities shut down. In view of the volatile situation, facilities such as the Internet and phone texting were blocked for an entire week.

Yet, the rally turned Hardik Patel into a hero, and he became the face of the Patidar community, and not just its youth. A 22-year-old with a hitherto unimpressive political background had brought the mighty Gujarat State to its knees. “We had been making this demand for some time. But Hardik Patel was able to give it strength and dynamism. His age and energy inspire our youth,” said Ketan Patel, who runs a car-servicing garage in Ahmedabad. The trigger for the rally was personal. It was the time for college admissions. Hardik Patel’s sister, who had secured 90 per cent marks, did not get a State government scholarship, while her friend, who had scored lower marks, obtained it through the OBC quota.

Hardik Patel was a fledgling activist with the Sardar Patel Group (SPG), the organisation from which the PAAS subsequently branched out. His sister’s diasappointment apparently set him off on his path to seek reservation for his community. He began small movements to take up the case of the Patel youth. There was also the larger issue of discontentment among the community because of the paucity of employment and educational opportunities, agrarian issues and a decline in small- and medium-scale industry. Hardik Patel tapped into this discontent to start an agitation that shot him to fame.

Born on July 20, 1993, in Chandan Nagri, Ahmedabad district, Hardik Patel comes from a modest background. His parents moved to Viramgarh, a bigger town, to give their children a better education. However, Hardik Patel turned out not academically inclined; he barely managed to make it through school and college. He put his energies into student union activities and in his final year (2012) won unopposed the post of general secretary. Soon after college, he joined the SPG. As an SPG member, he travelled across Gujarat trying to understand and stand by Patidar youngsters struggling to acquire an education and gain employment.

In July 2015, he broke away from the SPG over differences with its leader, Lalji Patel. Spurred by support from Patidar youths, he started the PAAS. The Ahmedabad rally led to his emergence as a leader to be reckoned with. Yet not all Patel groups were supportive of the young activist. The SPG, for instance, believed that he had charisma but had lost his way in stardom. “He went national too soon. He doesn’t have a strategy or is being advised badly,” said the political commentator Aakar Patel.

“Yet the youth connect with him. He is from that generation which has only seen the BJP in power. They are probably fed up with false promises,” said Ketan Patel. “If you see his rallies or even go to his office, the mood and energy is positive and enthusiastic. People are tired of old scheming politicians. He brings a new life to Gujarat politics.”

In 2016, Hardik Patel was arrested on charges of sedition and imprisoned. Bail was granted on the condition that he leave Gujarat for six months. Given the current climate of persecution, it was widely believed that Hardik Patel was finished. But he seems to have bounced back and is clearly in for the long haul.

Alpesh Thakor

At a convention in January 2016, Alpesh Thakor declared that his community would decide Gujarat’s next Chief Minister. Like Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor has been outspoken in his criticism of the BJP. Along with Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani, he is determined to bring down the party in the coming election. However, unlike the other two, he has formally joined the Congress, giving the party a much-needed shot in the arm. Not quite as young as Hardik Patel but equally fired up, Alpesh Thakor, 40, claims that OBCs, S.Cs and S.Ts form 70 per cent of Gujarat’s electorate and thus place his organisation in a position to influence the electoral mandate. Its extensive cadre network across the State will be a huge help to the Congress, which has no organisation to speak of at the grass-roots level. A Congress leader said: “The party has leadership but no foot soldiers. Alpesh Thakor is very good at the booth stage.”

Alpesh Thakor came into prominence during the 2015 Patidar agitation. His consistent campaigns against liquor addiction, unemployment and loan-related issues of farmers made him popular. When the Patidar agitation started, he mobilised his community against it, for OBCs stood to lose if the Patidar demand on reservation was entertained. Later he said he understood why the Patels were a disenchanted lot. “If upper castes like the Patidars have fallen through the cracks of economic progress, the system should be reassessed. I am fighting for the poor, the same as Hardik Patel, so we are natural allies,” he told the media in October this year.

At 40 per cent of the population, the OBCs form the largest vote bloc in Gujarat. The Thakor community comprises nearly half of that percentage. Along with the OSS Ekta Manch, Alpesh Thakor also leads the Gujarat Kshatriya Thakore Sena, which has become a powerful group. The Congress claims that his induction will help it in 40 to 50 Assembly seats.

Alpesh Thakor, who comes from Viramgarh, is known to have harboured political ambitions for some time. His father, Khodaji Thakor, has been active in politics and informed sources in Ahmedabad suggest that he pushed his son into it. Alpesh Thakor’s fight against liquor led him to take up other issues for his community. For the past three years, he has relentlessly worked on community issues. A Congress leader said: “He has done a significant amount of social work, has a clean image, is the most experienced of the three new leaders and has matured into a strong leader. Alpesh is perhaps the most sound in politics if you want to compare.”

At the time of the 2015 Patidar agitation, when Alpesh Thakor stood up to Hardik Patel, there were murmurs that the BJP had set him up to counter Hardik Patel. It was also rumoured that he would be rewarded with the party ticket. However, Alpesh Thakor seemed to have changed course along the way. His community has traditionally supported the Congress. Alpesh Thakor, who is known to have his ear to the ground, heard his people. The way forward was through politics, he said while joining the Congress. The young aspirant is perhaps someone to watch.

Jignesh Mevani

Jignesh Mevani’s rise as a leader of the Dalit movement in Gujarat has been nothing less than phenomenal. A year ago, he was desperately fighting land rights cases in Ahmedabad’s lower courts. Today, he may play a major part in jeopardising the BJP’s chances of retaining Gujarat.

Speaking to Frontline about the election, the 36-year-old lawyer and activist said: “Let us be clear—there is no Hindutva wave, no Modi wave and no BJP wave. We are setting the agenda. Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and I want to expose the issues and struggles of farmers and marginalised communities. There is an anti-BJP wave now. Hopefully, it will become bigger, unless they do something drastic.”

Gujarat’s Dalit community comprises 7 per cent of its population. It has never been a relevant number during elections and little attention has been paid to it. Jignesh Mevani hopes to change that. Although he has categorically ruled out joining a political party or even starting one, he clearly and loudly said Dalits were anti-BJP and would campaign against it.

“I think it will be a tough fight. We aim to see large chunks of the Patidars, the OBCs and Dalits voting against the BJP,” he said.

His Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch was set up after four Dalits boys were beaten up in Una, Gujarat, in July 2016, reportedly for skinning a cow. Jignesh Mevani and his activist friends reacted by starting a movement that questioned the constant discrimination, injustices and atrocities heaped on Dalits.

“I think something just snapped post-Una. We had had enough. Our young Dalit boys are not willing to be put down by caste and be oppressed any longer,” he said. “Yet we have to go beyond Una. We have to demand social and economic justice. Land is critical to our emancipation.”

During the past year, Jignesh Mevani filled a vacuum in Dalit activism. Articulate and deeply knowledgeable on marginalised communities, he has used various platforms to speak on Dalit issues. He began his fight with a struggle for land rights, which he believes is the only way forward. In recent months he has broadened his fight to include issues of unemployment and education.

“The government is supposed to give five acres [one acre is 0.4 hectare] gauchar [barren] land to landless Dalits for cultivation. They say they don’t have it. But they have hundreds of acres for big industry,” he said.

“If Dalits had land, they would not be skinning animals or cleaning waste. We have to put an end to this obnoxious and filthy work our community is forced to do. We have to ensure that the law catches up with those who torture our people,” he told Frontline. “This campaign is just rhetoric. It has to be about current problems and solutions.”

He lists the BJP government’s unkept promises: seven crore jobs in three and a half years; Rs.15 lakh in the bank accounts of the poor; a check on prices. “Instead, we got demonetisation and GST and, of course, the gau mata [cow mother] issue.”

Born, raised and educated in Ahmedabad, Jignesh Mevani worked as a journalist and later with the Jan Sangh Manch under the late lawyer and activist Mukul Sinha. A Dalit himself, Jignesh Mevani’s exposure to the oppression that the community faces began when he toured the Saurashtra region with the activist Bharat Zala in 2013, when the region was witnessing a spurt of farmers’ suicides. He subsequently spent time working at the grass roots to understand Dalit issues in rural Gujarat. After the Una incident, outraged Dalits needed a leader to stand up for the community. Jignesh Mevani put up his hand and took on the task.

After the Una beating, he led an “azad” (freedom) yatra from Ahmedabad to Una, speaking to thousands of Dalits along the way. This was when he made his mark. “We needed someone like Jigneshbhai. He inspires us. I think he has every quality to be a great leader,” said Pankaj Macwan, a student in Ahmedabad. Critics say Jignesh Mevani does not have the reach that Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor have. However, his intellect, passion for his people, and accessibility are qualities that clearly draw the community to him. Jignesh Mevani does not seem interested in politics, but this election shows he is clearly involved in it. “We have to dethrone the BJP,” he said. “This unconstitutional, anti-Dalit, anti-Patidar, anti-Muslim, anti-farmer, anti-labourer party has to be brought down. My role is to campaign for that,” he told the media.