Can Congress use caste to challenge BJP’s Hindutva-plus-Vikas formula in the Gujarat elections?

These days, the above question is debated to judge whether, or not, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will register yet another victory in Gujarat. Probably, the question has arisen on the basis of the premise that BJP is not using the caste card as much as the Congress. Or, the contention is that the caste factor is favouring the Congress this time.

But isn’t BJP as “casteist” as its competitors? By all accounts, the BJP is all set to play the caste-card in 2017, as it always does. If Hindu unity under the Hindutva umbrella is its overt card, it covertly but forcefully manages a balanced representation of the major castes. An example of this is its victory in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP has found a formula to exploit contradictory political forces—one, that unites Hindus, one that divides Hindus.

This time too it will use the reality of caste with as much vigour as it will use the Modi card.

Since last one year, when in Gandhinagar, Amit Shah’s total attention has been on doling out power among the various sub-castes at the village and district levels. In well-co-ordinated moves, with PM Modi, he has remained engaged in nominating and reshuffling various caste leaders within the BJP fold, at all levels, with an eye on the election in 2017.

You can frequently overhear Shah instructing his deputies on the line of “two Darbars, three Kolis and one Ahir should be inducted” in some committee or other.

It’s difficult to fathom why, in New Delhi the narrative is not so substantial about Modi-Shah’s grip over Gujarati castes and sub-castes and its uses and misuses in the battlefield of Gujarat.

To understand this better, take the case of Shambhuprasad Baldevdasji Tundiya, a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha. It’s difficult to understand if he is in the Upper House because of his Hindutva credentials, as he is the chieftain of the religious seat of Sant Savgun Samadhisthan in Zanzarka village, or because he represents the Vankars, a sub-caste of Dalits. The BJP has in its focus his five-lakh staunch Dalit followers. Since the mid-17th century, when Dalits and other lower caste families travelled from other parts of Gujarat on pilgrimage to Dwarka and Somnath temples, Shambhunath’s ancestors gave them free boarding and lodging facilities. Over decades, a legend got built due to the virtues of the saints who led these charitable activities.

There are many such places where social and cultural traditions are preserved and where caste meets religion. PM Modi’s visit to Akshardham temple on 2 November was, also, to please the Patels who are the backbone of Swaminarayan sect.

In the early 1990s, when Narendra Modi was the backroom boy in Khanpur’s BJP headquarters and scripting Keshubhai Patel’s rise with help of the upwardly mobile Patidar votes, visiting journalists could not miss noticing his approach towards caste politics in Gujarati society. He could study caste with the neutral eye of an outsider and play it as only an insider could. He has been keeping in touch with various caste and sub-caste leaders and knows their socio-cultural background.

Amit Shah’s  aim is to create “credibility” among the maximum number of big and small caste leaders, so that their local leaders have traction to take the message of Modi, Vikas and Hindutva.

In many ways, BJP is using local caste-backed leaders and inter-connected religious sects and local sub-sects in these elections too.

Early in his career, Modi focused on the Gujarati caste conundrum and even the local caste-based lingo that plays its role at the time of elections. Along with Gujarat-based RSS stalwarts, Modi had, then, perfected the placing of castes on the electoral chessboard so well that Congress’ support-base of Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi and Muslim votes crumbled.

According to a pre-Independence caste-based census, Gujarat had roughly 7% Dalits, 9% Muslims, 14% tribals, 14% Patidars, 5% upper caste Rajputs, and 5% upper caste Brahmin-Baniyas. Other Backward Classes were not lower than 45%, including the biggest single bloc—Kolis, with 20%.

Take it or leave it, but in Modi’s scheme of things, neither Vikas nor just Hindtuva credentials of BJP candidates get votes. If, before the camera Modi is seen as quintessentially the Hindutva poster boy, who is engaged in Vikas, behind the scenes, he has outclassed the caste game of the Congress in all elections in Gujarat since 1995.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi arrives to meet traders and weavers  on the first anniversary of the note-ban, in Surat, Gujarat, on Wednesday. Photo: IANS

In exceptional cases, Hindutva helps more than the caste game, as it happened after the 2002 burning of train in Godhra.

As for Amit Shah, his sole aim long before the elections has been to create “credibility” among the maximum number of big and small caste leaders and a caste-based cadre, so that their local leaders have traction to take the message of Modi, Vikas and Hindutva to the voters. The credibility is created when the respective caste leaders get firm assurance that power will percolate down to them, too.

While analysing the 2017 Gujarat elections, most analysts are saying that since Alpesh Thakor, Jignesh Mevani and Hardik Patel are against the BJP, their respective supporters have given birth to “the anti-BJP vote”. That’s true. Also that there is huge anti-incumbency against the arrogance of many BJP leaders and corruption in Gujarat’s system has increased since 2012, which has made life difficult for the common man. That’s correct, too.

They also say that the Congress is in the default position in Gujarat, so it will have the “added advantage” of three celebrity young leaders siding with the party. But that isn’t exactly true. Because, Mevani and Thakor have energised only the Congress voters. They are not bringing in fresh votes into the Congress kitty. It’s only Hardik Patel who is working to mobilise “disgruntled BJP voters” to bring them to his side. That too largely Patel voters, who, in terms of numbers, matter much less than Kolis and are just equal to Gujarati tribals.

The Congress will have the caste advantage only if an overwhelming chunk of young angry Patels follow Hardik Patel. Even then, the BJP will ensure that the anti-Patel Thakor vote gets mobilised to offset the loss.

In the 2012 Assembly elections, the BJP, to undercut Keshubhai Patel’s rebellion, had pacified the Patels by giving around 45 seats to them out of 182. BJP had completely surrendered to the Patel power, then. For long, Modi kept the loud and dominant Patels under control, while cajoling the OBCs, particularly the Kolis. The Patels, who comprise around 14% of Gujarat’s population, got an outrageously higher number of tickets at around 25%. Thanks to Hardik, they will not get fewer seats this time. And if Congress leaders try to give Patels more than their due share, then the supporters of Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani will have heart-burns.

Right now, Congress’ best bet is to bank on the “anti-incumbency vote”. The BJP’s and the Congress’ list of candidates will give an idea on how the various castes will be represented this time.


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