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When things fall apart

Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel’s decision to resign from her post on Monday did not come as a surprise to many. The announcement was made in a Facebook post, where she cited her age as the reason behind her decision to quit. Patel, who turns 75 in November, said the party “will accept responsibility from senior voluntary workers after 75 years of age”. She added that this will give her the opportunity to “work in the next generation”. The Parliamentary Board of the party will take a final decision on the matter. Reports indicate that she has stepped down to help the party select a new leader who can navigate the Vibrant Gujarat event and then the election campaign of December 2017. However, as recent events suggest, there is more to it than meets the eye. 

To cut the long story short, her exit is being seen as a result of the Gujarat government’s mismanagement of two major uprisings in the state – first, the Patel agitation for reservation and then the Dalit protests following the assault on four tanners by cow vigilantes. Patel’s resignation comes a day after thousands of Dalits in Gujarat took to the streets of Ahmedabad to protest against the flogging of four Dalit tannery workers by self-styled cow vigilantes in Una for skinning a dead animal. They told the state government they will stop disposing of dead cattle and cleaning sewers. 

The collective pledge was taken at a rally called by as many as 30 Dalit groups from across Gujarat.
Over the past month, the BJP-ruled state has been witness to a mass unrest against the brutal assault of four Dalit leather tanners in Una. The local police did nothing to stop or prevent the attack, according to an independent fact-finding report on the incident. In a brazen disregard for the rule of law, the victims were tied to a vehicle and beaten up with iron pipes and wooden sticks. The incident caused a serious outrage among the lower castes, many of whom have skinned dead animals for several generations. 

Thousands went onto the streets, dumping cow carcasses in public places in protest. Although atrocities against lower castes are a common occurrence in the state, the sight of Dalit men being thrashed mercilessly for merely doing their job touched a raw nerve. In an obvious attempt to save face for the BJP, which has openly supported cow protection vigilante groups in the past, the Centre condemned the attack and said it was committed to stopping such atrocities. Anger against the BJP-led government comes at a time when the party is seeking to bring Dalits on board in a major way to realise its ambition of enhancing its national presence, especially with elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh on the horizon. 

The Gujarat government’s lack of tact in handling the episode have forced many to believe that Patel had become a political liability. Reports indicate that the Dalit unrest had instant repercussions in Uttar Pradesh, where BJP President Amit Shah was compelled to cancel his meeting with Dalits. Barely two months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declined to accept Patel’s resignation has he been forced to change course.

The Dalit unrest comes soon after the high-octane agitation for reservations in government jobs and educational institutions by the high-caste Patel community. After months of agitation, the state government finally relented in late April this year to extend the benefits of reservations to the affluent Patel community. It is no surprise that the BJP-led government had relented, considering that the Patel community forms the backbone of the party’s support base in the state. Late last year, the BJP suffered a major setback in polls across rural local bodies. With Assembly elections scheduled for next year, the party seems unwilling to take any chances. 

The government’s decision to extend 10 percent quota for the economically backward class among the upper castes in government jobs from May 1 was made following violent clashes between members of the Patel community and the state police in Gujarat’s Mehsana town. Soon after the news of violence in Mehsana spread, mobs staged protests in other parts of the state, where they clashed with the police. In the context of the Patel agitation, the Gujarat government made a politically prudent decision in introducing reservations. But it may not withstand the judicial scrutiny in view of the 50 percent ceiling on quota in government jobs imposed by the Supreme Court. Despite the state government’s announcement, there are strong indicators that Anandiben Patel was abandoned by the party soon after the Patel agitation. 

It’s an open secret that the state BJP unit has been riven with dissent since Narendra Modi’s elevation to the PMO. After the Patel agitation, there were reports that the party cadre and senior leaders started to take orders from BJP President Amit Shah, instead of the Chief Minister. It’s no secret that Patel had serious differences with Shah long before she became Chief Minister in 2014. With Assembly elections due in just over a year from now, the current political climate in the state is snowballing into a major worry for the BJP.
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