Vadgam in Banaskantha district will be one of the most-watched seats in the coming Gujarat Assembly elections because fighting to retain the constituency will be Jignesh Mevani who won last time as an Independent. This time, Mevani is in the fray as a Congress candidate.
In a wide-ranging interview, he discusses both his own electoral prospect and that of his party, the Congress. He dwells on the issues of these polls, how the election this time is different from 2017 when he contested as an Independent, and the BJP.
You contested as an Independent in 2017. This year, you are a Congress candidate. What is the difference?
We all know that in Gujarat and across India there is an issue of literacy and for the rural people who are illiterate it is tough finding a symbol (of an Independent candidate). If not more, then 2,000 to 5,000 people must have faced difficulty in finding the sewing machine symbol (Mevani’s symbol as an independent candidate in 2017). So, in that context, I will benefit (as a Congress candidate).
Apart from that, a big segment of the Congress was bewildered about where this issue of independent candidature came from (in 2017). So, that matter has been resolved, not that each and every party worker will be with me. By and large, Congress people feel good that now I am part of the party. So, it helps. And the Congress is a decades-old party. So, I get an added advantage of its symbol.
Secondly, I get (formal) backing from the party, which was also there last time. A lot of party leaders and workers can also now see their prospects through me. Overall, it is an advantage for me to fight elections on the Congress symbol.
The Supreme Court recently upheld the 10 per cent EWS quota. Do you see it affecting Gujarat elections in any manner?
I don’t see much of an impact at the moment. Any positive or negative vibrations created by it have not reached me. Maybe, I am too lost in the campaign. Otherwise, generally, when this kind of ruling comes, there are reactions from both sides of the camp. One camp cherishes it, while another one discards it. But there has not been much talk about it.
In the 2017 elections, the Una flogging incident was one of the major factors. This time, it is nowhere in the picture. How do you see the government’s attitude towards Dalit issues in the last five years?
Dalits are largely working-class people. And they are the rural landless people of India. The same applies to Gujarat as well. So, the kind of economic policies the BJP stands for and the kind of economic disaster they have unleashed — inflation, unemployment, economic exploitation — all these issues affect Dalits. Even if there is no visible large-scale campaign, since it affects Dalits, they will stay away from the BJP.
Secondly, wherever I have been able to campaign against the BJP in the last two years or so, we have done a lot of ideological work as well. We have explained what the BJP stands for. And why we should be away from them. Secondly, the Dalit middle class that benefited from the reservation policy is vocal enough to explain to the Dalit masses that the BJP is determined to finish your reservation, that the BJP and its frontal organisations are against the Constitution.
So, you don’t see any change in the Gujarat government’s attitude towards Dalits?
The attitude of the government towards Dalits is pathetic. They just don’t care. ‘You die, we don’t care.’ That is the approach. Despite demands coming from all corners and the issues being raised in the state Assembly, they neither care about the atrocity cases (SC-ST Act) nor do they care about implementing the scholarship scheme. (They are) not concerned about the formulation of the SC/ST Sub Plan Act. They don’t want to do anything about landless Dalits, they don’t want to allocate land, they don’t want to ensure the possession of already allotted land unless there is a call of agitation. So, the attitude is the same.
The attempts they have made to bring Dalits to their fold have not worked. Because there is genuine unrest among Dalits. And even apart from me, there are many Dalit groups operating at the grassroots level that are constantly taking Dalits away from the BJP. Dalits have enough ideological material to take it to the Dalit masses to ensure they don’t go to BJP.
In 2017, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and you were fighting against the BJP. In 2022, Patel and Thakor are in the BJP. What do you say?
Let the people of Gujarat judge it.
You don’t want to say anything more than this?
I have said everything I had to say.
The AAP is claiming it will form the government. How do you see it as a political force in Gujarat?
Everybody has the right to live in a fool’s paradise.
Vadgam is a Muslim-dominated seat and the AIMIM has fielded a candidate here. Do you see any influence of the AIMIM in the constituency?
There is some influence. But the wisdom the Muslim community has shown throughout, all across India, makes me believe that eventually it will be sorted out.
Do you see your votes going down this time (owing to AIMIM and AAP candidates)?
No. On the contrary, there is every chance that the (winning) margin may go up because of the Vipul Chaudhary factor (the imprisonment of the Chaudhary community leader has turned the group against the BJP), the local issues, and detachment of some of the very committed BJP workers of the Chaudhary community from BJP. Because of these issues, there is a lot of unrest and a section of the Chaudhary community likes me because of my work on the issue of water crisis.
So do you see the Chaudhary community supporting you this time?
This time it is clear and evident. They are openly saying it. They are campaigning for me because of the imprisonment of Vipul Chaudhary.
Delhi AAP leader Rajendra Pal Gautam’s episode related to the Buddhist conversion programme was turned into a big poll issue by the BJP. After that, Gautam also resigned as Delhi minister. How do you see it?
It has not gone well among Dalits. Dalits are enough educated and politically oriented to understand that to protect the so-called upper caste votes, the AAP has done it (make Gautam resign).
After becoming the working president of Gujarat Congress, what has been your contribution to the party?
As and when my party needs my services — in going and addressing the masses, taking up certain issues, focusing in north Gujarat and particularly in Patan and Banaskantha districts where I am the in-charge — I do that. So, whatever role has been assigned to me as a working president, I am doing that.
In 2017, Congress won 77 seats and is now down to 59 MLAs. So many people have resigned. Against that backdrop, how do you see the way forward for Congress?
It is undoubtedly difficult. And the manner in which Congress MLAs have been leaving the party is a huge concern for everyone in Gujarat and even for the central leadership. This is not sending a good message. But what can one do? It is a big concern for the party and there is no immediate solution. But the good thing is that despite all the efforts of the BJP, still we are 60 MLAs. We have not formed the government in the last 27 years but the Congress still has a tremendous base all across Gujarat. We have grassroots workers in almost every booth in every village. And the spirit is quite reasonable. But, it is a challenge and we need to do a lot more ideological work. We need to bring more people who are ideologically sound and aligned with the party.
What are the issues in the current election?
The undercurrent of a silent voter that I can see is that people have got crippled. It looks like people have lost the spark to even aggressively react against the government. I can see that the poor, labourers and the deprived make up such a class of voters. He (a common person from these classes) is depressed due to inflation and unemployment. The dream of achhe din shown by Modi saheb is being broken every day. So, I think inflation is the most important issue. For the youth, unemployment and paper leaks are major issues.
People have been suffering from so many problems, but they have not been able to speak up after seeing the kind of oppression (the ruling party does). My Assam episode, the sedition cases against Hardik Patel, the case registered against journalist Dhaval Patel, and the case against Vipul Chaudhary — a big number of people are not able to speak since they have seen that this government targets people. So, dadagiri and tanashahi (coercion and dictatorship) are too much.
Unemployment, paper leaks, inflation, and issues of contractual and government employees who are being exploited in government functions — not giving them the old pension scheme and issues of fixed-wage employees — all these are troubling people. Even if one cannot see a political narrative being set around it, these are the main issues.
You emerged as a Dalit leader after the 2016 agitation. Since then, no major face has come up from the community. In the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, your organisation, do you attempt to groom young people for leadership roles?
A leader cannot be made. A person becomes a leader with his hard work, struggle and talent. You cannot speak like me merely because I promote you. The guts to face imprisonment in Assam jail does not come merely because I promote you.
Secondly, what is a leader?
Everybody doesn’t need to get the fame and popularity that I got. At the district and taluka levels, there are many leaders. The Una incident got so much prominence that I became a face. There may not be faces like me, but there are a lot of leaders.
Manibhai Vaghela (former Congress MLA from Vadgam) is the BJP candidate against you. How do you see his influence in Vadgam?
Naturally, he will have contacts here since he was an MLA here. But my fight is not against an individual. My fight is against an ideology. A big force of the BJP is making efforts against me. The way I was targeted in the Assam case, and the way I was convicted in two cases after that. So much political vendetta is visible. I am fighting against the whole state machinery and not against an individual.