In the end, Vijay Rupani became a casualty of the caste politics that ran deep through Gujarat for decades, until the BJP’s brand of Hindutva managed to paper over the cracks for some time. With the state elections scheduled to be held in November-December 2022 in Gujarat, which is held with proprietorial concern by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the home minister, the signals from the ground were not exactly propitious for the BJP.
Apart from issues of incumbency related to the economic distress caused by the pandemic, in the cities and towns, the agrarian sector, that forms the spine of the economy in North Gujarat and Saurashtra is not exactly robust. The BJP coped with some of the problems on both the scores in the 2017 elections, its tally dipped in the north and Saurashtra but it scraped through because the south and central Gujarat tilted marginally in its favour and the Congress failed to sustain the advantages accruing in north and Saurashtra. However, the shadow of the Patidar agitation, fuelled by a host of subjects that related to the demand for reservation in educational institutions and jobs as well as the withdrawal of cases slapped against those who led and participated in the violent protests hung large over the BJP. Those issues have not receded in the background in the prelude to 2022.
The BJP’s big error was appointing Vijay Rupani as the chief minister after Anandiben Patel, who succeeded Modi once he moved to Delhi, stepped down. The mild-mannered Rupani is from the Jain community but importantly, he was believed to have made the cut because he suited the central command. Rupani was not perceived as a challenge to the powers in Delhi because he did not have a mass base and was not from a dominant caste. The trouble was Rupani’s choice was another provocation for the Patels who wanted a person from the community to helm Gujarat, hoping that the new incumbent would accede to some of their demands, unlike Anandiben who treated the Patidar agitation purely as a law and order challenge.
Nitin Patel, who was done out of the top job on previous occasions, again made a serious bid to get it but he lost out to Rupani. As a sweetener, he was made the deputy CM but he was aware he did not have the high command’s patronage—a post-2014 trend in the BJP where the central leadership previously gave the state leaders the latitude they needed to fulfill their political aspirations and ambitions. In the years when the BJP was out of power in Delhi, the states were the engines that powered its growth and stature. The central command generally viewed the states with a benign gaze unless a chief minister confronted its authority as the late Kalyan Singh did and after him Karnataka’s BS Yeddyurappa. Nitin Patel was slotted in that category. He has a strong base in Mehsana, the seat of the Patidar agitation, and is known to mobilize cadres at a moment’s notice.
The run-up to the 2017 elections saw the emergence of three influential young leaders– Hardik Patel, who spearheaded the Patidar protests, Alpesh Thakore, an OBC who oversaw the Thakore Sena, and Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit who channeled the anti-scheduled caste sentiments against the BJP into a movement. Thakore alone joined the Congress and won his assembly seat; Patel supported the Congress and gave it the traction it needed in the Patel-majority seats while Mevani fought and won as an Independent. Subsequently, Thakore joined the BJP but forfeited his seat in a by-poll while Patel was inducted into the Congress. For long plagued with dissensions, the Congress has not given Patel the space he yearned for although he was appointed as a working president.
Shambolic as the Congress’s condition is — the strength of the legislature party shrank after the BJP spirited away several of its elected members—that was not a reason to inspire confidence in the BJP. In the last elections, the leaders sought to counter the Patel backlash by attempting to regroup the OBCs and the intermediate caste of Kshatriyas as well as the Dalits in what seemed like a reprisal of the Congress’s old KHAM (Koli Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) formula, sans the Muslims. While the Koli Kshatriyas were largely with the BJP, the Dalits and Adivasis stayed loyal to the Congress despite its organisational infirmities and the absence of a state leader. The BJP has a propensity to re-arrange the pieces on a caste chessboard. At times, the effort pays off as in Haryana where it successfully pitted the non-Jats against the Jats and won with the support of the former. In Gujarat, it has still not brought the projected gains for the party which is why it has had to fall back on the Patels, a community that usually gravitated towards a non-Congress party and firmly switched allegiance to the BJP in the 1995 elections and thereafter. However, the break came in 2017 although it was not an irrevocable parting. The presence of Patel leaders like Nitin Patel, central minister Mansukhbai Mandaviya, and Praful Patel, the Lakshadweep administrator as well as Gordhan Zadaphiya, who left the BJP along with Keshubhai Patel, the veteran who was the BJP’s first Gujarat CM. Zadaphiya, who is from Saurashtra, was wooed back with important posts in the organisation.
However, what is of significance is that none of the leaders, synonymous with the BJP in Gujarat, is a Patel. Modi is a backward caste Teli and Shah is a Vaishnava Baniya. That the BJP had to fall back on the Patels is an indication of another probability: that Hindutva, for long used to cement caste contradictions, might have lost the efficacy of the past. In 1995, the combination of Hindutva– that manifested itself in the movement for a Ram temple, a history of communal violence, and the Congress’s alleged patronage of the mafioso from the old parts of Ahmedabad, Surat, and the port towns– constructed a powerful narrative to alienate the minorities together with the full backing of the Patels brought a convincing victory. The tempo was sustained until 2017 when the fault lines became visible. By 2021, the cracks might just have widened and Rupani was certainly not the candidate to close the gaps.
Radhika Ramaseshan is a consulting editor with Business Standard and a columnist. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.