The propaganda gas in the “Gujarat model” of development balloon has begun to leak rapidly as a result of pinpricks by a troika of youth leaders who have emerged riding the crest of a wave of three statewide independent social movements.

The first social movement that challenged the claim of all-inclusive growth of the Gujarat economy was that of the youth of the Patel community under the banner of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) demanding reservation in jobs and institutions of higher education on par with the reservation given to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) under the Constitution. This was led by Hardik Patel, then 22, who mobilized a massive rally of over half a million people in Ahmedabad on 25 August 2015.

This was for the first time that the Patels, who account for between 15 and 17 percent of the state’s population and who have been rallying behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 1995, showed signs of rebellion against the saffron dispensation.

The BJP government headed by chief minister Anandiben Patel—who herself is from the Patidar community—came down heavily on the pro-quota stir leaders. The massive rally went helter-skelter when the police baton-charged the peaceful protestors while whisking away PAAS convenor Hardik Patel from the stage.

This was followed by a reign of terror with policemen vandalizing parked cars, scooters and motorcycles in predominantly Patel residential colonies in Ahmedabad city. Video footage of policemen on the rampage went viral on social media, triggering a chain of violent protests by the Patel youth across the state. The protestors targeted police stations, patrolling jeeps and vans, pelting them with stones and setting them ablaze.

The issue of reservation for the Patels took a backseat as the agitation pressed for punishment for the “rogue” police officers. The government, instead of initiating action against the police, booked Hardik Patel and about a dozen other PAAS conveners under the serious charge of sedition. As many as 10 people were killed, while an aggressive police force lodged more than 450 first information reports (FIRs) against nearly 1,500 agitating Patels between 25 and 28 August.

 

Consequently, Hardik Patel intensified the agitation that had already spread across the state. The government went a step further and jailed the PAAS convenor and other community leaders on charges of sedition, among others.

Even as the Patel-quota stir snowballed, another movement was gathering momentum under the leadership of Alpesh Thakore. In its initial stages, it seemed to have been launched to safeguard the interests of OBCs, Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) fearing that Patels, if accorded OBC status, would eat into their share of reservation in jobs and education.

Why, one may ask, did reservation suddenly became a major issue for Gujarat’s youth, who were touted by the BJP and its then chief minister Narendra Modi as “vikas purush” who would usher in corruption-free, all-inclusive development of the country based on the Gujarat model?

Because Gujarat was rife with corruption, lopsided development that favoured a handful of “crony capitalists”, rising unemployment, rural indebtedness and pauperization of farmers.

Close on the heels of the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh, where seats in medical and engineering colleges were sold for several lakh rupees to the children of rich parents, reports of a Rs10,000 crore scam in the recruitment of talatis (village-level revenue officials) and other low-ranking state government jobs—a total of 50,000 posts—during Narendra Modi’s reign as chief minister exploded following the confession by the operator of a coaching class who collected up to Rs1 lakh each from jobseekers. 

During the 12 years of Modi’s rule, dozens of private medical and engineering colleges that charged lakhs of rupees as capitation fees had come up, prohibiting youngsters from modest economic background from pursuing higher education.

Corruption in government recruitment; diminishing job prospects in large-, medium- and small-scale industries in the private sector; fragmentation of agricultural landholdings, and even loss of farmland due to acquisition for Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Special Investment Regions (SIRs) and urbanization were the root cause of the sudden spurt of agitations by the youth, both urban and rural.

While the PAAS raised the demand for reservation in jobs and education, the OBC, SC, ST Ekta Manch lead by Alpesh Thakore launched a statewide agitation against increasing alcoholism and drug addiction among the youth because of the flourishing illegal trade that was carried out in connivance with corrupt police officials and politicians. His Thakore Sena also started free coaching classes for economically and socially backward castes in several towns.

Meanwhile, rural Gujarat saw a sudden outburst of protests from farmers after the Modi government at the Centre failed to push through a Bill to amend land acquisition Act following stiff opposition from the Congress and left it to the state governments to frame their own laws.

The BJP government in Gujarat devised a way to bypass the land acquisition Act by including villages under the existing and newly constituted urban development authorities of major cities and even small towns under the provisions of the town planning Act of 1976.

The government, through notifications, announced the inclusion of more than 100 villages in the state under the urban development authorities of all six major cities and a dozen smaller towns. Farmers whose lands now came under the town planning schemes rose in revolt under the banner of the Khedut Hit Rakshak Samiti. Similar agitations by farmers of villages around proposed SEZs and SIRs halted the acquisition of over 1.5 lakh hectares of land in central, north and south Gujarat.

The leaders of all these social movements were not affiliated with any of the political parties, but their common “enemy” was the BJP, which was seen as promoting the interest of its crony capitalists at the cost of the agriculturists.

The political fallout of these three separate and distinct social movements—of the Patels, the OBCs and the farmers—translated into anti-BJP votes during the elections to panchayats and local self-government bodies in December 2015.

The BJP suffered its worst loss in local body elections in Gujarat in over a decade as the Congress regained lost ground, especially in rural areas. A clear rural-urban divide was visible as the ruling party fared much better in the cities and towns. While the BJP retained all six municipal corporations, the Congress wrested 23 of 31 district panchayats and 113 of 193 taluka panchayats.

Even as the Patel quota stir and the OBC, SC, ST Ekta Manch consolidated their support base, a series of ugly incidents of violence against Dalits took place in central Gujarat and the Saurashtra region, the worst being the flogging of five youth in Una town by self-proclaimed cow vigilantes.

The Una incident rocked the nation, with leaders of all non-BJP parties visiting the victims’ families to express solidarity. While these political leaders came on short flying visits, 35-year-old Jignesh Mevani led a protest march called the Dalit Asmita Yatra that was attended by some 20,000 Dalits, including women from Ahmedabad to Una, which culminated on 15 August 2016 when they took a pledge to give up their traditional jobs of removing cow carcasses.

Mevani, who has a degree in law, has been demanding land for the landless Dalit farm labourers from the surplus found under the land ceiling Act.

Taking cognisance of the influence of the troika of Patel, Thakore and Mevani and the issues raised by them, state Congress president Bharatsinh Solanki reached out to them to join hands in the fight against the BJP in the forthcoming state assembly elections.

Thakore was the first to respond. After meeting Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, he said he would join the opposition at a rally he had called in Gandhinagar. At the rally, attended by more than two lakh youth of the Thakore Sena, Thakore formally joined the Congress in the presence of Gandhi, who he had invited as the guest of honour.

While Patel cannot contest elections as he is below 25 years of age, Mevani has decided to campaign against the BJP and lend his support to Congress candidates without joining the party.

Mevani has been holding meetings with Dalits, both men and women, exhorting them to repeat a pledge after him to defeat the BJP in the forthcoming Gujarat polls as well as the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The text of the pledge, taken in the name of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, says, “We will not vote for the BJP which is anti-Dalit, anti-Muslim, anti-tribal, anti-women and even anti-Patel.”

On his part, Hardik Patel and his youth supporters of the PAAS have been holding protests, shouting the slogans “Jai Sardar, Jai Patidar” and “Bhajapa Bhago” wherever they see BJP workers on door-to-door campaigning.

The PAAS has put up signboards at the entrances to more than 4,000 villages in north and south Gujarat and the Saurashtra region saying, “Section 144 of CrPC is in force for the BJP workers”, meaning the BJP is prohibited from entering the village. (Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code prohibits the gathering of more than four people at one place, with the intention of preventing rioting.) There have also been reports of clashes between the supporters of the PAAS and the BJP in Surat and several other towns where the Patels have a sizeable population.

The Congress party, without making any overt efforts to woo the various caste and community groups of voters, has got friendly support from the Patels, the OBCs and the Dalits, besides a large number of farmers cutting across castes.

Under the circumstances, the BJP in Gujarat appears to be on the back foot. The party’s national president, Amit Shah, has given his party workers the target of winning 150 seats of the total 182 in the state assembly. In the 2012 elections, the BJP won 115 seats against the Congress’s 61, but the difference in vote share was a little over 7 percent.

With the Patels constituting 15-17 percent of the population, OBCs 45 percent and Dalits 14 percent, the target of winning 150 seats set by the BJP national president appears to be a tall order.

The BJP’s hope is hinged on three main poll planks. One, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the pride of Gujarat, so if his party is defeated, his prestige would be lowered in the eyes of the world. Two, if the Congress wins, Muslims will be pampered. And three, the Congress is anti-development, so the state will not be able to get its due share from the central government.

In his election rallies, Modi has stressed the benefits of having the same party in power both at the Centre and in the state to ensure speedy development. To support this argument, he points out that when Morarji Desai was prime minister, Babubhai Patel was the chief minister in Gujarat, and Keshubhai Patel was Gujarat’s chief minister when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister. Now that he is at the helm in Delhi, Vijay Rupani holds the reins in Gandhinagar.

The slogan on the BJP’s hoardings, too, highlights this: “Hu chhu vikas, hu chhu Gujarat” (I am development, I am Gujarat), accompanied by the larger-than-life images of Modi, Shah and Rupani.

Modi, both as chief minister and prime minister, has termed the Congress as anti-development and anti-Gujarat, and now has gone to the extent of issuing a veiled threat to the voters in Gujarat by saying the Centre will not spend a rupee on states where anti-development governments are installed.

 

Nachiketa Desai is a senior journalist based in Ahmedabad and tweets at @nachiketadesai. The views expressed are his own.

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