Out of power in Gujarat for over two decades, the Congress is approaching the elections this year on alliances and understandings that are far different from its formulae of previous elections. Having inducted OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, it has also struck deals with leaders who represent three separate communities — Dalits, tribals and Patels, the last among which, in particular, has so fare been the backbone of the BJP’s successes in the state. In another change, the Congress is not in alliance with the NCP this time, although the second phase could possibly revive that.
Congress leaders describe the new caste engineering as KHAP, a spinoff from former CM Madhavsinh Solanki’s KHAM formula of the 1980s that had sought to address Kshatriyas, Dalits (the acronym was based on their description as “Harijan”), Adivasis (tribals) and Muslims. It is the first time a Gujarat poll has been marked by caste mobilisation, with leaders of several communities challenging the might of ruling party.
It is not just the Kshatriya vote but larger gains from across OBC groups that the Congress is targeting. It has won over an emerging young leader, Alpesh Thakor, whose community forms the largest of the OBC groups in Gujarat. Alpesh joined the Congress in the presence of Rahul Gandhi on October 23. The shot in the Congress arm is expected to be felt most strongly in the Kshatriya/OBC belt of North Gujarat.
For the SC vote, the Congress will bank on Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani, who has been campaigning consistently among SC communities asking them not to vote for the BJP. A large section of Dalits had deserted the Congress for the “Hindutva” appeal of the BJP and other groups; the Congress will bank on Mevani to bring them back. Other new Congress allies include the JD(U) faction led by Sharad Yadav. Now called BTP, the breakaway group says it has been allotted seven seats. Its face in Gujarat is Chhotubhai Vasava, one of the state’s tallest influential tribal leaders, which is where the ST vote comes in. The Congress will bank on Vasava’s influence particularly in South Gujarat.
Vasava himself has won six consecutive times from Jhagadia in three-cornered contests against the BJP and the Congress, which will now hope to transfer its votes there and gain from similar transfers elsewhere. Though the official JD(U) faction too is fielding candidates in tribal areas, it is seen as lacking the infrastructure to match Vasava’s; other local JD(U) leaders too have joined Vasava’s BTP.
The biggest gain in the Congress’s sights, however, would be the Patidar vote, which had been seen as having gone against the Congress ever since Solanki introduced the KHAM formula. Now the Patels are vertically divided between the BJP and the Congress, owing to the quota movement led by 23-year-old Hardik Patel and his organisation PAAS, which has accused the BJP of using the community for its growth and then dumping it. At his rallies, Hardik has been asking Patidars to vote against the BJP. He has gone to the extent of alleging that the BJP might resort to communal violence to polarise the polls, and he has been urging the Patidar community to guard against this. Having accepted PAAS demands including constitutional reservation for Patidars, the Congress is hoping to see the Patidar community rally behind it for the first time in three decades, particularly in Saurashtra.
If Madhavsinh Solanki’s KHAM helped bring the Congress a record 149 seats in a House of 182 in 1985, it is his son Bharatsinh Solanki, now state Congress president, who is credited with rewriting that formula into the so-called KHAP after over 30 years. While Patidars replace Muslims in the new acronym, Congress leaders stress this does not mean they don’t want Muslim votes. Rather, they say, they want to avoid communal polarisation; they would rather not be called a pro-Muslim party. “The priority is to win the elections,” said Badruddin Sheikh, a senior Muslim leader of the Congress. In any case, the Congress is confident that Muslims in Gujarat have no alternative other than the Congress.
About the breaking of the Congress-NCP alliance, AICC general secretary Ashok Gehlot has blamed the NCP. State Congress leader Manish Doshi said the NCP, by insisting on 16 seats, had set an unacceptable condition. The NCP, which has fielded 48 candidates for the first phase, is still ready for an alliance in the second phase. “We can go for an alliance of seats for the second phase if we are offered at least 16 seats,” NCP state general secretary Jagdishchandra Dapda said. The confident Congress has rejected it, saying, “The NCP needs us, not vice versa.”