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Monday, December 09, 2019

Gujarat assembly elections 2017: Quotas, asmita, and how the battle this year has come full circle

The Congress has put up a fight more spirited than it has shown in many years, and the BJP has betrayed the nerves of long incumbency.

Written by Leena Misra | Updated: December 18, 2017 7:41:39 am
Gujarat assembly elections 2017, Gujarat elections 2017, assembly elections Gujarat, Gujarat assembly polls, Gujarat polls, india news, indian express, indian express news PM Narendra Modi at a public meeting at Surat on December 7 (Express Photo by Hanif Malek)

The winner of the fraught, bitter campaign in Gujarat will be known today. The Congress has put up a fight more spirited than it has shown in many years, and the BJP has betrayed not just the nerves of long incumbency, but also the pressures of defending itself against new, energetic challengers who have a finger on the people’s pulse. But this election hasn’t been about just 2017 and 2019, or restricted to the time since Narendra Modi moved to Delhi. It has been about politics and society in Gujarat since at least the Fifties and Sixties, and the decades that followed, during which some of this election’s most contested ideas and themes emerged and developed to maturity. The Prime Minister referred to many of these strains, pulls and pressures, as well as the concept of “Gujarati asmita”, repeatedly.


Post Independence, as the country worked towards the integration of the Indian states into the Union, the region known today as Gujarat was culturally and administratively divided into Kutch, which covered the Thar desert and shared a border with Pakistan, Saurashtra, and Gujarat. Kutch was under central rule, Saurashtra, a union of states, had its own chief minister, Uchhrangrai Dhebar, popularly known as Dhebarbhai, and the rest was part of Bombay Presidency.

ALSO READ: Gujarat Assembly Elections Results 2017 LIVE UPDATES

Viramgam was a town on the border of Saurashtra and Gujarat. Train journeys ended there, and travellers had to board another train after a thorough baggage check to get to Gujarat. Travellers by road recall paying a “tax” at Viramgam.

The periods of ferment in Gujarat’s history, such as the anti-reservation riots of 1985, the KHAM political experiment, and the Emergency, as well as leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Morarji Desai, were invoked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his references to Gujarati “asmita” during the campaign for the 14th Gujarat Assembly elections. As he inaugurated the Ghogha-Dahej ferry service in Bhavnagar in October, Modi said he had been “reading about this ferry service since the time of Chief Minister Balwant Rai Mehta”, Gujarat’s second Chief Minister, to emphasise the alleged anti-development nature of successive Congress governments before the BJP era. The timeline of Gujarat’s political-electoral history is fascinating, studded with periods of violence and the periodic emergence of tall leaders who played powerful roles in at the national level.

Maha Gujarat Movement

Soon after Independence, even as the Linguistic Provinces Commission (Dhar Commission) was working on merging Gujarat with the state of Bombay, revolutionary writers like Kanhaiyalal Munshi set people thinking on the idea of “Gujarat ni asmita”. One of its biggest believers was Indulal Yagnik of the All India Kisan Sabha. Gujarat was the cradle of the Bardoli Satyagraha of 1928 that gave Vallabhbhai Patel the title of Sardar, and the Dandi Yatra under Mahatma Gandhi in 1930, and it did not take long for it to fight for a political space of its own. The resolution for the bilingual state of Bombay moved by the Jawaharlal Nehru government provoked the uprising in Ahmedabad on August 8, 1956 under the leadership of Yagnik — also called Indu chacha — called the Maha Gujarat Movement, that went on for three years and nine months. The districts of Ahmedabad, Kheda, Bharuch, Surat and Panchmahal, which were under the British, went into the Bombay Province whose Chief Minister was BG Kher, and which had Morarji Desai as one of the Ministers.

The movement led to the formation of a front called the Maha Gujarat Janata Parishad, which contested and won elections thriving on the anti-Congress sentiment. Born out of the violent Maha Gujarat Movement in which several young men died in police firing, the front, however, lost ground once Gujarat was formed in 1960. All 132 legislators of the Bombay State became its legislators. This strength rose to 154 in 1962, 168 in 1967, and finally, 182 in 1975.

The first general elections were held in 1962 on the sentiment of the state’s “asmita” or identity. The Gujarat carved out of Bombay State had 19 districts, 154 Assembly seats, and was 72% rural. Its first Governor was Mehdi Nawaz Jung.

Sentiment against the Congress ran high in the state in its formative years. Farmers’ movements, including the one led by the right-leaning Swatantra Paksha of Bhailal Patel, widely known as Bhaikaka, gave a keen fight to the Congress. Dissidence led to the resignation of the first Chief Minister, Dr Jivraj Mehta, in 1963. His successor Balwantrai Mehta died in a mysterious plane crash in Kutch during the 1965 Indo-Pak war, and Hitendra Desai, a Morarji supporter from South Gujarat, took over as CM. The first two Chief Ministers were from Saurashtra’s Amreli and Bhavnagar districts respectively.

The national events in the Congress reflected in the local politics, too. The lack of security and infrastructure in Kutch that came to light in the war, swung the verdict in 1967, even as Morarji Desai emerged as the challenger to Indira Gandhi after Nehru’s death in 1964, and eventually split the Congress in 1969 into the Congress (I) and Congress (Organisation). President’s Rule was imposed after Hitendra Desai’s Congress (O) government saw defections to the Congress (I). The eventful political career of Chimanbhai Patel, one of Hitendra Desai’s ministers who defected, began from here.

Famine, riots and shaky Chief Ministers

In 1967-68, famine struck Banaskantha. This was followed by the worst communal riots since Partition, when nearly 500 people, a majority of them Muslims, were killed in Ahmedabad in 1969. President’s Rule followed after Hitendra Desai lost majority in 1971, and elections were held the following year. Indira’s Congress, fresh from the triumph of the Bangladesh War, swept to power with 140 of the 168 Assembly seats, and Ghanshyam Oza became Chief Minister. Madhavsinh Solanki, Amarsinh Chaudhary and Chimanbhai Patel, all of whom would be CM later, were in his government. In 1973, Oza’s government lost the confidence of MLAs, and Chimanbhai, his chief challenger, succeeded him that July.

Navnirman Andolan

The famine that hit Banaskantha in 1968 built anger, as foodgrains, sugar and edible oil disappeared from the market and the Chimanbhai government faced allegations of corruption. In December 1973, students of the Morbi engineering college protested increased fees and mess charges. Similar protests broke out in Ahmedabad, and students, backed by trade unions, came out in the streets. Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel was burnt in effigy, and protesting students handed rolling pins and bangles to mock helpless MLAs. In the face of widespread violence, some 100 towns and cities were put under curfew.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biography on his blog mentions his association with the movement: “As a young Pracharak and associate of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Narendra joined the Navnirman movement and dutifully performed the tasks assigned to him.” It says he also had the opportunity to meet Jayaprakash Narayan then. The movement saw the rise of many current-day political leaders like Narhari Amin, who is now with the BJP, the late Ashok Bhatt, and Umakant Mankad, and eventually led to the fall of the Chimanbhai government.

The Emergency

Harin Pathak, who was a Minister in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, says the Navnirman movement inspired JP’s movement and unified the opposition against Indira Gandhi. A week before the Emergency was declared on June 25, 1975, the opposition Janta Morcha won the Gujarat Assembly elections, and its leader Babubhai Jashbhai Patel, originally of the Congress (O), became CM. Keshubhai Patel of the Jana Sangh was one of its Ministers.

“During the Emergency, Morarji Desai went on a protest fast against MISA (the infamous Maintenance of Internal Security Act) and Indira Gandhi made him break his fast,” said Congress leader and former Minister Hasmukh Patel, who saw these events from close. Desai was to be later jailed under this very Act. Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, who later fought Lok Sabha elections from Gujarat, too were jailed under MISA.

“Since Gujarat was under a rival party, the impact of Emergency was not seen till March 1976, when Babubhai Patel’s government fell because of defections,” Pathak said. President’s Rule followed, and in December 1976, the Congress returned to power, with Madhavsinh Solanki as Chief Minister. In Delhi, the government was dissolved in January 1977.

In the 1977 Parliament elections, Shankersinh Vaghela and Morarji Desai won on Bharatiya Lok Dal tickets from Kapadvanj and Surat respectively. Desai became Prime Minister, but had to make way for Chaudhary Charan Singh in July 1979. Maniben Patel, Sardar Patel’s daughter, and Keshubhai Patel won the Mehsana and Rajkot seats on BLD tickets. For the Congress, Ahmed Patel won from Bharuch and Ahsan Jafri from Ahmedabad. In the next elections in 1980, however, the Congress swept 25 of the state’s 26 Lok Sabha seats, the lone defeat coming in Mehsana at the hands of the Janta Party’s Motibhai Chaudhary. (The Congress’s performance was to be bested by the BJP in 2014, when the Modi wave brought it all 26 Lok Sabha seats.)

Until the late 1970s, the representation of Muslims in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha, too, was significant. In 1975, Ayeshabegum Sheikh was elected MLA from Somnath, and became a state Minister. Somnath was to later occupy a central place in the politics of Hindutva in Gujarat. The 1975 Assembly also had a Parsi MLA, from Mandvi.

Caste, KHAM, reservations

In the initial phases of social coalition-building, “Paksh” or Patel-Kshatriya (Pa-Ksh) dominated every party. After the birth of the BJP in 1980, however, Congress leaders Madhavsinh Solanki and Jhinabhai Darji forged a new social coalition known as KHAM — Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim — that was seen as “isolating Patels”.

The politics of quota began in April 1978, when the Gujarat government accepted the Justice A R Bakshi Commission’s recommendation for categorizing 82 castes as backward, and reserving 10% seats for them in agriculture, medical, veterinary and technical colleges. This triggered unrest during admissions to medical colleges in 1981, but Solanki government pressed harder, appointing the Justice C V Rane Commission, which raised the OBC quota to 28%. Solanki was himself an OBC, and his government immediately accepted the recommendation. In 1985, the Congress won 149 of the 182 Assembly seats, the highest for a single party.

This inflamed the already agitated student community, and riots broke out across Gujarat against the quota system. The violence took a communal turn, and Ahmedabad and Vadodara saw the most casualties. The Congress replaced Solanki with Amarsinh Chaudhary, the first tribal Chief Minister. Although Solanki’s government had a large number of Patel ministers, a campaign was launched to portray the Congress as an “anti-Patidar” party. Patels were Gujarat’s agrarian community, landed, wealthy, and influential.

Rath Yatra, Congress fadeout

Following the defeat of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, and as an anti-Congress wave swept the country, Chimanbhai Patel had his second shot at chief ministership, this time as a member of V P Singh’s Janata Dal, and backed by the BJP. The Congress had been reduced to 33 seats in the elections of 1990, the BJP had 67, and the JD, 70. Keshubhai Patel of the BJP became Deputy CM.

Amid nationwide protests against the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, Chimanbhai announced that the recommendations would not apply to Gujarat. As the BJP pushed the politics of kamandal to counter Mandal, Advani began the Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath on September 25, 1990. The government of Lalu Prasad arrested Advani in Samastipur on October 30. On the same day, and then again on November 2, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s government fired on kar sevaks assembled in Ayodhya, killing at least 16. The BJP had by then withdrawn support to Chimanbhai, but his government survived with help from the Congress, and Chimanbhai subsequently joined that party.

In the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, powered by the Hindutva wave, the BJP won 20 seats in Gujarat. Chhabildas Mehta, who became Chief Minister after Chimanbhai’s sudden death in 1994, was the state’s last Congress Chief Minister, even though the party did go on to support the governments of Shankersinh Vaghela and Dilip Parikh from 1996-98.

High on Hindutva

In the period that preceded and followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, Gujarat became the laboratory of Hindutva. The opening up of the economy notwithstanding, Sangh Parivar outfits like the Bajrang Dal and VHP attacked the symbols of economic liberalisation such as Baskin Robbins icecream parlours and vans carrying Pepsi and Coke, alongside targeting what was to be later labeled “love jihad”. In 1995, the BJP came to power on its own, winning 121 seats on the back of Patidar support. That year, it won most local body elections as well.

Power struggles within the BJP, however, saw Vaghela, one of the party’s founder members and its state president, engineering a rebellion that forced Chief Minister Keshubhai to step down within months. Vaghela himself became CM in 1996, winning the elections as an Independent, and leading a government of defected BJP MLAs and Congress MLAs. His ambition led him to dissolve the Assembly and call elections along with the national elections of 1998, but his Rashtriya Janata Party could win only four seats in the Assembly and

Keshubhai returned as CM as the BJP picked up 117.

2001 quake, 2002 riots

Vaghela’s party merged with the Congress in 1999, but the BJP’s popularity seemed to be eroding with the instability in Gandhinagar. The Congress won some by-elections, and rose to 61 seats in the Assembly. These developments, followed by the 2001 earthquake in Kutch, saw the exit of Keshubhai Patel, his government facing allegations of corruption. In October 2001, the organisational general secretary Narendra Modi became Chief Minister.

The Sabarmati Express burning of February 27, 2002 and the riots that followed polarised Gujarat completely along communal lines. In the elections that December, the BJP under Modi won 127 seats, its highest ever. In 2007, the BJP’s tally fell to 117, and in 2012, to 115. But Modi succeeded on establishing the plank of “Gujarati pride”, which became one of the springboards for his leap to national power.

The return of quota

Modi’s slogan of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ faced its first test in North Gujarat. From Viramgam rose Hardik Patel, who launched the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) in July 2015, when Anandiben Patel was at the helm. The Patidar quota agitation triggered the OBC movement under Alpesh Thakor, also from Viramgam, while the Una flogging incident threw into the spotlight the Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani.

Supporting Hardik were middle-class Patels whose landholdings had reduced, and who saw themselves as were losing out on higher education and government jobs due to reservations. The movement and rioting, in which 13 youths were killed, led to a powerful anti-BJP sentiment, reflected in heavy losses in the local body elections that December. In 2016, following the Una incident, and with the Uttar Pradesh elections due, the BJP replaced Anandiben with Vijay Rupani. The Congress has largely built its 2017 campaign around these agitations, and hopes to make electoral gains, much on the lines of how BJP built itself on the Navnirman and anti-reservation incidents.

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