The polls over, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah both cautioned people of Gujarat against the “poison” of caste — their euphemism for Congress gains in Gujarat riding on resentment among Patidars. This came shortly after Hardik Patel vowed to resume his agitation.
The next poll battle in Gujarat is slated for May 2019. It is difficult to gauge how the Patidar issue will play out but the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections tested BJP’s calibrated electoral strategy to ring-fence the party’s electoral prospects against muscle-flexing by dominant castes in different states.
Though the party scraped through Gujarat, data suggests the BJP suffered electoral setbacks in Patidar-dominant areas of Saurashtra. This brings to the fore the fragility of the BJP’s strategy.
The party warded off the dominant Jat community’s demands in Uttar Pradesh early this year. But that was possible because of their relatively smaller share in the electorate across the state as well as lack of overt enthusiasm on the part of rival SP and BSP to woo them during the elections.
But the rival Congress’s dalliance with dominant Patidar community seems to have undermined the BJP’s victory margin in Gujarat.
Likewise, the numerically significant and politically organised Jat community in Haryana and Maratha community in Maharashtra have been the two other examples against which the BJP has cobbled its electoral support base in both these states. The party signalled its intentions by installing a non-Jat and non-Maratha Chief Minister in Haryana and Maharashtra respectively.
However, both these communities have been restive in these states and have put the BJP government in a spot since the party came to power in 2014 in these states. Both have been demanding quotas. As a counter strategy, the BJP is experimenting a Mandal II with a committee for sub-categorisation of OBCs to ensure equitable distribution of quota benefits to non-dominant castes.
Marathas account for 35 per cent of the population in Maharashtra and are clamouring for inclusion in the OBC-category. Waiting in the wings are powerful Maratha leaders like Sharad Pawar who are neither short on resources nor muscle to make things difficult for the BJP. At stake are 48 seats, the largest chunk from any state other than Uttar Pradesh.
The 21 per cent Jats are the single largest caste-group in Haryana. The BJP won eight of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana in 2014. Normally, one-third of the 90 members of the Assembly at any given time happen to be Jats.
The Patidar movement and its impact on Gujarat election results may not only inspire these communities but could also nudge BJP’s rivals to tap dominant castes anxieties in both states. Unlike UP where the dominant Yadav community leadership did not court the Jat community during elections early this year, BJP’s rivals in Haryana and Maharashtra are likely to tap into the simmering political anxieties of the community in both the states.
The BJP has so far worked on ring-fencing its electoral prospects against the diktats of the dominant castes by a reverse polarisation of rainbow coalition of non-dominant caste communities. The party, in fact, successfully executed it in Uttar Pradesh against the Yadav community dominance early this year.
But the party’s similar hope of reverse polarisation against Yadavs failed in Bihar during 2015 Assembly elections. Partly, it was undone by the popular perception among these groups that the Sangh Parivar was opposed to caste-based reservations in the aftermath of a remark by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.
Anxieties among the dominant peasant communities like Jats, Marathas and Patidars among others have been building up in the wake of economic changes putting the domestic agrarian economy under stress.