Updated: December 19, 2017 5:07:33 pm
The 1980s were a particularly crucial period for Gujarat’s political history. The Madhav Singh Solanki led Congress government had come to power after almost a decade of unrest and agitation over the corrupt practices of the previous government. As soon as Solanki established himself as chief minister, a new era of politics was ushered into the state — the era of caste politics. Solanki’s strategy of coming to power on the basis of reservations for the lower castes was a cause of much disappointment for the upper castes, who immediately responded with violent riots. The anti-reservation riots occurred in its ugliest form between February 1985 and October 1986, resulting in a death toll of 275 and injury to thousands others.
Paradoxically, the 1985 riots that started off in the name of caste, soon turned into a communal affair. The spate of violence that took over the state manifested itself in the form of unprecedented stabbings, looting and the burning of houses and shops. Most of the victims in these cases were Muslims. As the chaos subsided with the stepping down of the chief minister, Gujarat yet again saw itself stepping into a new political era. This time it was religion that dominated, while caste lay silently breathing underneath the forces of Hindutva.
Since the late 1980s, the state has firmly remained in the grips of first a Janata Dal leadership and then the BJP. In the last two decades, as the Gujarat model was held up over and again as the ideal illustration of development, the state also saw some of its worst incidents of communal violence. While the BJP government rode over its strategy of Hindutva mobilisation, wrapped within layers of rhetoric on development, the issue of caste was somewhat hidden from public focus. This election season, however, there was a perceptible change in the political air. Since 2015, caste politics in Gujarat, particularly in the form of the Patidar agitation, had raised its ugly head yet again. The election campaign of this year was surprisingly dominated, not so much by the narrative of development, nor that of Hindutva. The issue of the Patidars had a stark visibility, with the community leader Hardik Patel taking centre stage.
The public prominence of Hardik Patel and the nature of ticket distribution among candidates of both parties has led to political scientists and commentators noting that this time on, Gujarat is back to caste politics. However, while caste is definitely back in the 2017 electoral politics, this time its nature is different and so are its demands.
Era of caste politics
The Navnirman agitation shook Gujarat for full two months in 1974. Organised by students and middle-class citizens, it was aimed at a financially, morally and politically corrupt government, and resulted in the chief minister Chimanbhai Patel being forced to resign and president’s rule being imposed on the state.
Next time the Congress came to power was in 1980 with an electoral strategy of appealing to the backward castes and classes. The party’s electoral slogan was ‘power to the poor’. They contested the state elections on the basis of the KHAM (Khatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims) strategy. The KHAM constituted 55 per cent population and the newly-elected Congress government ensured that they were entitled to caste-based reservations in educational institutions and in the private and public job sectors.
Ornit Shani, a scholar of politics and modern Indian history, notes in her work that “the political success of the KHAM alliance resulted in the exclusion of some groups among the upper castes, particularly the Patels, from positions of power, and generated anxiety among some upper caste groups at this challenge to their political dominance.”
The increased visibility of the lower castes in every sector came as a cause of much concern for the upper castes, among whom the Patels were particularly agitated. They saw their hitherto dominant caste status suddenly deteriorating. The 1985 anti-reservation riots on one hand, resulted in the Congress chief minister being forced to step down, and on the other led to the alienation of the Patels. The Patels who were all this while staunch supporters of the Congress, swiftly shifted loyalties and in the ensuing years formed a strong support base for the BJP.
The era of Hindutva politics
The 1985 riots, while originally targeted at caste-based reservations, had curiously enough, developed a communal tone. Explaining the transformation of caste to communal politics, Ornit Shani notes that “the growing appeal of Hindutva, and its inherent antagonism towards Muslims, was in fact an expression of deepening tensions among Hindus, nurtured by an instability in the relations between castes and by the ways in which changes in the caste regime was experienced by diverse groups of Hindus.” In other words, the growth in the appeal of Hindutva, particularly for the higher castes of Gujarat, lay in the hostility they felt towards the changing caste structure which was a result of the reservation policies.
From the mid-1980s, the BJP expanded its base in rural Gujarat by mobilising peasants and other strata on economic and religious issues. L K Advani’s rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya was soon followed by a consolidation of communal attitudes among the citizens of the state, resulting in a large number of religious riots, both in urban and rural Gujarat. In such an emotionally charged atmosphere, when the tenth Lok Sabha elections took place in 1991, the BJP made a sweeping victory in Gujarat, capturing 52 percent of the votes.
After Narendra Modi came to power in the state government, the mobilisation of a Hindu electoral base strengthened further. Social scientist, Ghanshyam Shah notes in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly that Hindutva for Modi, was his trump card. “Like many of his fellow swayamsevaks he believes that the first priority of the Hindu voter is his security,” he writes. The communal character of Gujarat’s socio-political landscape showed its ugliest colours in the 2002 Godhra riots that resulted in death of thousands, injuring thousands more.
In the 2007 election campaign, Modi once again turned his attention to the Hindutva theme, this time though, through an anti-terrorism note. “Remember by government has given you a terror free Gujarat when 30 per cent of the country’s districts are still affected by terrorism or Naxalism,” he said in November 2007 to a huge gathering of businessmen in Ahmedabad. The BJP made a sweeping victory in both the 2007 and the 2012 elections.
The era of caste politics 2.0
In July 2015, a large demonstration, attended by thousands was organised in Ahmedabad. The group belonged to the Patel caste, who would hitherto call themselves the Patidars. Considered to be one of the dominant castes in Gujarat, and notably the most prosperous one as well, the Patidars were ironically demanding reservation for their community in educational institutions and in public and private sector jobs.
Despite the seemingly prosperous profile of the Patidar caste, there was a class element to it as well. Analysing the Patidar agitation, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot writes that “while the ‘Gujarat model’ relied on high growth rates resulting from highly capitalistic investments by big companies, contract workers and low wages, it did not benefit the rural part of the state as much as the cities, and it created too few good jobs.” While this imbalance in development affected everyone, the rural-urban divide in the prosperity of the Patidars was a lot more stark. Further, having traditionally been a dominant caste, the Patels carried within them a sense of superiority. The rise of many among the KHAM through the socioeconomic ladder on the basis of the state’s reservation policies, left large sections of the Patidars feeling aggrieved and let down.
The Patidar agitation was led by Hardik Patel and Lalji Patel, who are described by Jaffrelot to be the “typical sociological profiles of the disgruntled Patel youth.” Both of them started asking for reservations for their caste group. Between July and August 2015, public demonstrations took place in Mehasana, Visnagar, Devbhoomi district, Gandhinagar, Jamnagar, Amreli, Junagadh and finally at Surat where close to 5 lakh demonstrators had been mobilised. As Jaffrelot notes, the agitating Patidars were well aware of the fact that caste based reservation was a demand that would not be met. Their aim rather, was “to destabilise the system and dilute it.” “In that sense, their movement is not terribly different from the ‘andolans’ of the 1980s,” added Jaffrelot.
For the first time in last 20 years, the Patels seem divided in their support for the BJP and Congress. Led by Hardik, large sections of the Patidars seems to have turned away from the BJP, mobilising themselves around the Congress, more as a means of ensuring BJP’s loss rather than Congress’ victory. Of about a population of 6 crores, the Patidars constitute about 1.5 crores and figures predicted that they can influence about 70 out of the 182 Assembly constituencies. The impact of the Patidar factor can further be felt by the nature of handing out tickets by both the BJP and the Congress. While 24 per cent of the candidates nominated by the Congress belong to the Patidar community, 28 per cent of the tickets distributed by the BJP belong to them.
The Congress, on the other hand, is also placing its hopes on the OBC community, to whom it has given 38 per cent of its tickets. The BJP’s ticket share among the OBCs shows that they too are focusing on the backward castes communities, although to a lesser extent than the Congress.
While the Patidar and OBC factors were unsuccessful in shaking BJP’s stronghold on the state, the marked improvement made by Congress in its electoral performance shows that caste did in fact have a role to play. Is Gujarat then, in the era of caste politics 2.0? Only time shall tell.
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