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Game on Gujarat!

Game on Gujarat!

New caste equations are taking shape for the upcoming December Gujarat Assembly polls even as two opinion polls — one by Times Now-VMR and another by India Today-Axis My India — have given the BJP between 118 to 134 and 115 to 125 seats respectively in the 182-member Assembly. Despite facing double anti-incumbency, the ruling BJP exudes confidence about returning to power for a fifth consecutive term based on its own calculations; yet, the ground situation seems a little more complex. Interestingly, for the first time since 1995, the major opponent, the Congress, is fancying a win in the state. While the BJP won 115 seats in the 2012 Assembly elections, the Congress has not crossed the figure of 61 in the state Assembly, since 1995.

When all else has failed, caste is the last resort for political parties. A demoralised Congress is hedging on the hope that caste polarisation is the most effective counter to the religious polarisation by the BJP and is pinning its hopes on three emerging young caste leaders.
The Congress has fielded the old war-horse, former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Ghelot, to stitch the new coalition. Sonia Gandhi's political secretary, Ahmed Patel, has deep roots in the state and the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, is also in the forefront holding secret parleys with the youth icons, whose help he requires to win the state.
A day after Diwali, the Congress offered tickets to Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani, and Alpesh Thakore—the three leaders who are fighting at different levels to oust the BJP from power in Gujarat. The state Congress president, Bharat Solanki, calls them three important factors with crucial vote bases—Patidars, OBCs and Dalits. While Hardik Patel (24) has led a protracted Patidar agitation for quotas for the Patels, Mevani (36) left his legal practice to lead protests against public flogging of Dalits at Una last year. Thakore emerged as the face of the Gujarat's OBCs—about 37 per cent of the state's population—when he began a protest against liquor addiction.
While Hardik Patel, convener of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) and Jignesh Mevani, convener of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch have openly declared their anti-BJP stand, Alpesh Thakore, backward castes (OBC) leader and convener of Gujarat Kshatriya Thakore Sena has joined the Congress recently, boosting its morale. Thakore Sena claims to have a team of 27-28 lakh volunteers, spread across 9,500 villages in Gujarat. Interestingly, the Congress also extended its invitation to the Aam Admi Party (AAP).
Why is the Congress going back to this course? It is because of its original vision of KHAM (Kshatriyas, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formula that brought the party to power in 1980 with a record victory. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, even chants in his rallies 'Jai Bhim', 'Jai Mataji' and 'Jai Sardar' to woo the three agitating groups of Dalits, OBCs and Patels. Former Chief Minister Madhvsinh Solanki was the author of this formula but it had later alienated the dominant castes.
Going for a caste coalition is all very well on paper but it is a complex issue. The support of 37 per cent OBCs and 16 per cent Patels are crucial for both the parties. Together they can influence 111 seats. Of the 4.33 crore voters, 65 per cent are young voters in the 20-35 year age group and participants in the reservation movements. The lack of jobs is a major problem they face.
Hardik wants the Patels included in the OBC list. The OBCs in Gujarat constitute 37 per cent of the state's population and enjoy 27 per cent reservation. The dilemma for any government would be, how to provide reservation to a socially dominant caste without alienating the OBCs already benefitting from the quota. The Congress talks a formula of keeping 49 per cent reservation for OBC and SC/ST intact while providing an additional 20 per cent reservation to the other communities by passing a resolution in the State Assembly, once in power.
Secondly, it is clear that with the entry of Thakore, the Congress proposes to target the OBCs as its core constituency. The challenge would be on how to accommodate the demands of Hardik and Alpesh, as there is a traditional rivalry between the OBCs and the Patels.
However, this new caste coalition has made the BJP nervous. The remarkable response to the young trio's campaign to defeat the BJP has made the party uncertain. Demonetisation and GST have upset the traditional vote base of traders and small businessmen.The diamond merchants are on the warpath.
The BJP strategists think that Alpesh and Mevani represent competing caste groups and would find it difficult to come together on the ground. Also, all the three caste leaders are untested in polls, so far, though they are crowd pullers. Whether they can convert their popularity into votes, is a question mark.
Rahul Gandhi has certainly emerged better in his Gujarat campaign, so far, but his efforts are only a shot in the dark. The results depend on a lot of other factors including booth management, converting the crowds into votes, and proper ticket distribution. Nevertheless, caste is indeed a dominant factor. The KHAM experiment might work if luck smiles at him. One week is said to be a long time in politics and we have more than six weeks to apprehend the Gujarat elections.
(The views are strictly personal.)

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