The Gujarat elections this time have been extraordinary, perhaps historic, for anyone interested in sociology. The high-decibel campaigns by the big two political parties have invited much attention. But the most striking feature of this election has been the people’s democratic participation. Earlier elections, in 2002, 2007 and 2012, were a kind of no-contest given the dominance of the BJP. The electorate was left without any alternatives and the successive BJP governments appeared indefatigable.
The Congress and other political parties could not offer political alternatives to the Gujarati electorate. Nor could they provide opposition to the BJP’s rule in a legible manner. The BJP continued to win election after election, even as many voters continuously felt alienated. But three restless young men emerged from Gujarat’s soil and things began to look up. Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor began by voicing the concerns of their respective communities but eventually, they brought ordinary people’s agenda to the centre stage. This led to the emergence of a pro-people narrative around agrarian distress, unemployment, privatisation of education, lack of civic amenities, subsidies to industry, governance, dignity etc. They could achieve something that the established political forces could not. In the end, the BJP’s narrow victory was thanks to the rhetorical skills of the prime minister.
In a democracy, elections present an opportunity for citizens to raise crucial issues concerning them and also to demand accountability from the political class. Unfortunately, this could not happen in successive elections for the last two decades in Gujarat. This time, the three young leaders were able to articulate people’s concerns and demand solutions. They did this, broadly speaking, without any political affiliations. The huge attendance at their rallies and meetings was an indication that they were voicing concerns which the political parties had failed to understand.
It must be mentioned here that apart from the agitations led by these three social leaders, there have been several protest movements throughout the state in the last few years. The national media may have missed some of these democratic movements, such as farmers’ protests, ASHA workers’ protests and protests by safai karmcharis, salt pan workers, contract workers etc. Of course, there were also protests by the not-so-poor groups such as the general strike by jewellers, textile traders etc. The Una struggle by Dalits and the Patidar agitation are well known to all Indians. In this regard, the Gujarat election could well be a harbinger of a democratic upsurge in the country.
It is sad that we live in an era where elections have become about political parties and personalities instead of the people. This was hardly the intent of the founding visionaries of our Constitution and, indeed, those who struggled in the freedom movement. The Gujarat election may just be the forerunner to many more elections where peoples’ movements can set the agenda and/or impact the outcomes.
Traditionally, Gujarat has been at the forefront of industrialisation, urbanisation and capitalistic development. The scenario is somewhat different as far as peoples’ movements are concerned though. Apart from the freedom struggle, which threw up leaders like Gandhi and Sardar Patel, there has not been much development. The Maha Gujarat Andolan for a separate state in the 1960s and the Navnirman anti-reservation agitation in the 1980s are the two prominent examples of a large-scale mobilisation of the people in the state. Both these agitations occurred prior to the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the early 1990s. The recent protest movements could well be an indicator of the performance of the economic policies that have become the norm in our country.
These economic policies continue to be in place whether it is the BJP or Congress or any other political party in power. How people-centric these policies are will be known in only the coming years only. Perhaps the Gujarat election will pave the path for more evidence to emerge in this regard. For now, the Gujarat election has demonstrated that the people of India will certainly question those in power about issues that are significant to them.