New caste equations taking shape before Gujarat elections

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Ahmedabad: New caste equations are taking shape in Gujarat as the state heads for assembly elections later this year.

Alpesh Thakor, an other backward castes (OBC) leader and convener of Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena joined the Congress on Monday at a rally in Gandhinagar, in the presence of party vice president Rahul Gandhi. The move comes as a fillip for the Congress that lost as many as 14 of its lawmakers in the last three months.

At Navsarjan Gujarat Janadesh, the OBC rally attended by thousands of supporters, Gandhi said Gujarat has seen various uprisings in the last few years. He chanted ‘Jai Bhim’, ‘Jai Mataji’ and ‘Jai Sardar’ during his 30-minute speech, in an apparent bid to woo the three agitating groups of Dalits, OBC and Patels.

Gandhi said Patel leader Hardik Patel and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani have a voice, and this voice can’t be restrained or cannot be bought, as that voice is inside every Gujarati.

“Gujarat is priceless. It has never been bought. It can never be bought. It will never be bought,” Gandhi posted on Twitter.

In his speech, Thakor expressed confidence that the Congress will win more than 125 of the 182 assembly seats. Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) president Bharatsinh Solanki said the party had extended invitations to three youth leaders—Thakor, Mevani and Patel—to join Congress in defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Patel and Mevani could not be reached for their comments.

In January 2016, Thakor emerged as the face of Gujarat’s OBCs—about 40% of the state’s population—when he began a protest against liquor addiction. The Thakors represent about 20-22% of the state’s population. Thakor has been protesting against the ruling BJP government over various other issues like unemployment and farm distress. In July, he and his supporters staged protests in different parts of the state by dumping milk on roads to put pressure on the state government for a farm loan waiver.Thakors, Dalits and Patels together make up 40% of the state’s population.

“While the BJP has suffered a setback in 2015 local body elections due to the Patel agitation, the situation has changed a lot in two years. There are glaring issues in Gujarat and it is not easy to say how much impact these youth leaders will have in state elections. Also, Thakor and Mevani are yet to exhibit how much influence they can have in elections so one will have to wait and watch,” said an Ahmedabad-based political expert, who did not wish to be named.

The BJP is also fighting to woo the three communities. The government last week withdrew as many as 468 cases against Patel community members in connection with their agitation. Last month, the government also announced an Unreserved Class Welfare Commission to study the demand for reservations by various castes.

Some of the key aides of Hardik Patel and Patel Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leaders Varun Patel and Reshma Patel and some other local leaders who were involved in the agitation defected to BJP last week. The BJP’s hopes of containing the electoral damage due to the Patidar agitation got a setback when Narendra Patel, another PAAS leader who had joined the BJP on 21 October alleged a day later that he was offered a bribe of Rs.1 crore to break away from the Patidar agitation. Also, Nikhil Sawani, another leader who was involved in the Patidar agitation and had joined the BJP a few weeks ago, left the party on Monday claiming the party was not doing enough for the Patel community.

A BJP official said while Hardik Patel has earlier indicated that he might support the Congress, the move could help the BJP as he would be seen deviating from their earlier reservation demand for which he had received support from the people. The official who spoke on condition of anonymity rubbished claims of bribes and called it a ‘publicity stunt’.