Two different kinds of protests in Gujarat since last year, the Patel agitation demanding reservations in jobs and education and the recent statewide angry response against the flogging of Dalits in Mota Samdhiyala, have a few common messages. Gujaratis are showing signs of fatigue from being ruled by the BJP since 1995. This is something more than “anti-incumbency”.
Both the developments will have a bearing on next year’s assembly election and will certainly spill over into the battleground of Uttar Pradesh. Gujarat hasn’t seen even a minor agitation in the past two decades on the caste front. There was a rare farmers’ agitation around environment concerns which stopped the Nirma project in Saurashtra. But with the outbursts of Dalits (7.5 per cent of the state’s population) and Patels (around 15 per cent) receiving a clandestine push from the Congress, anti-BJP political forces and disgruntled BJP leaders, Gujarati society is volatile once again.
Gujarat without Modi has entered a new time zone. After the agitation, led by Hardik Patel, the Patel community boycotted BJP’s Patel leaders. Ministers like Nitin Patel and Saurabh Patel were not allowed to hold public rallies, they were barred from many Patel-dominated areas and humiliated publicly. Junior home minister Rajni Patel’s residence in Mehsana was burnt down twice by members of the Patidar community. Even Purshottam Rupala — otherwise an impressive orator — who has joined the Union cabinet recently, was not spared. Chief Minister Anandiben Patel could not move around without facing stiff protests in the Patel-dominated villages.
Similarly, the Dalit rally in Ahmedabad last week gheraoed homes of Dalit MP Kirit Solanki and Rajnikant Patel, MLA of Asarva area. BJP holds 10 of the 13 seats reserved for SCs in Gujarat but none of these representatives are defending the Patel government. When people start envying their political leaders’ wealth and power, it’s clear that rebellion is brewing.
These events should not be taken lightly because Gujarat has been a trendsetter in national politics. The anti-Mandal agitation of 1990 had a precursor in the Anamat Andolan of 1985 in Gujarat. Jayaprakash Narayan was inspired by Gujarat’s Nav Nirman Andolan. Started in 1973 by students of an engineering college to protest against high prices of their hostel food, it forced then Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel to resign in February 1974.
The current anger in Gujarat over self-finance colleges (part of the Gujarat model) that charge around Rs 30,000 a year as fees for arts and commerce courses is no different. Some of the colleges, started in the past 20 years, are largely owned or supported by the BJP MLAs, MPs, or by members of their families. Not surprisingly, the party’s political machinery does not take up the issue of unaffordable education. The youth’s support to Hardik Patel has a lot to do with Gujarat’s dismal education system.
It is apparent that the glue of hardened Hindutva has started coming off within two years of Narendra Modi’s exit as chief minister. There was a time when Modi was applauded for talking about “Miyan Musharraf” but today Gujaratis are heard talking about “ISI men being courted by India in Pathankot”. Modi’s presence in Gandhinagar was once so heavy that even the state Congress president would not talk to journalists without checking to ensure that “nobody is listening”. At a paan stall in Baroda or at the bus stand in Rajkot, it was impossible to question Modi’s decisions. But on July 23, Dalits came out in big numbers shouting slogans against Modi at his hometown Vadnagar. Modi being jeered at a public rally, and that not being countered, is a sign of change.
If the five-lakh strong mahakranti rally of Patels on August 24 last year was a wake-up call for the Gujarat BJP in the post-Modi era, the current Dalit assertion is the people’s way of demanding action from the jaded party in Gujarat. That the situation is far from normal is clear by the silence of PM Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. It seems they want to let the CM face the music alone and keep the issue Gujarat-centric.
The CM knows that the Patel agitation was primarily against the idea of reservation, itself and the Dalits anger is against inadequacies of the reservation system where the advantages of more than six-decades of affirmative actions have not reached the lower rungs of the lowest section of the caste pyramid. The CM also faces the frustration of the youth due to unaffordable education and diminishing employment prospects. If the Gujarati farmers are not on the streets yet, it’s only because they are hoping against hope that the rainfall deficit of around 49% will reduce by the end of the season.
CM Patel, 74, an efficient administrator and weak political communicator, is perceived by the cadre as one whose exit is just a matter of time. They believe that even if under her leadership, the BJP goes to the polls, she won’t be CM if the party wins. She has tried to correct the perception, lately, saying if the party wants she will continue as CM after winning the next election. But her problems are not merely about handling antagonists in the cabinet or the vertically-divided party (Amit Shah camp versus Anandiben camp) but the Gujarati bazaars.
The micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in kapada (textiles) bazaar in Ahmedabad, heera bazar (diamond market) in Surat and engineering markets in Rajkot and Baroda have either plateaued or face various types of uncertainties including issues with the tax departments. Reports of business associations have claimed that Chinese competition (engineering goods) and lack of finance and smart marketing have failed middle-class entrepreneurs in past two-three years.
After Modi’s exit from Gandhinagar, around 29 lakh MSMEs have faced dramatic downturn. The RBI data says the outstanding loans of MSMEs has increased from Rs 836 crore in 2012-13 to Rs 2,601 crore in 2014-15 and the number of sick units in the state increased from 20,615 in 2012-13 to 49,003 in 2014-15. According to the data of a state level bankers’ committee, the non-performing assets (NPA) of banks is Rs 25,000 crore in 2015-16; it was Rs 13,353 crore last year. Rs 5,758 crore of the NPA in 2015-2016 is from the MSMEs.
Gujaratis had celebrated Modi’s leadership after the riots of 2002 by giving the BJP 127 seats at a massive vote share of 49.85 per cent. Modi has been unable to better this performance: BJP got 49 per cent and 117 seats in 2007 while in 2012, its vote share was 47.9 per cent and it got 115 seats. Congress’ vote share is 9 per cent less than that of the BJP.
Elections in Gujarat are due in winter next year but Patels, Dalits and Muslims — 32 per cent of the state’s population — are visibly displeased with the BJP. Last week, many Gujarati Muslim outfits supported Dalits in Patan, Kutch and Ahmedabad.
Modi became Gujarat CM in October 2001 but his attempts to bring together Gujarat’s different castes and communities under a saffron umbrella began in 1988 when he rose as a powerful organisational secretary of the party. The BJP has remained in power since 1995 because it maintained the delicate patchwork of castes and also raised Hindutva sentiments. Modi along with Amit Shah will now have to rely on remote control measures.
One wonders how political perceptions and realities of high cost of living, pervasive corruption and failing hopes of voters can be corrected or managed through remote controls or even with the tools Modi had at his disposal in 1995 or in 2002.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘The churn in Gujarat’)