Unless Modi can recreate his magic, the trio of Patel, Thakore and Mevani and the castes they represent could well be the deciding factor in Gujarat.
In an assembly election which is a prestige issue for the ruling BJP, the party is leaving nothing to chance. With the Congress putting in a spirited challenge, the BJP's star campaigner Narendra Modi is slated to address 50 public meetings across the state.
BJP president Amit Shah's visits to his home state have also increased. He has been camping in the state and holding meetings with party workers. Having announced a target of 150 plus seats in the 182-member assembly, the BJP hopes the Modi magic would work again. “He will handle everything. One needs to just wait and watch,” is the general sentiment among the party's rank and file.
The results, however, are not a foregone conclusion. Gujarat votes on December 9 and 14, and the Congress is looking up to three young men—Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani—as game changers. Unless Modi can recreate his magic, the trio and the castes they represent could well be the deciding factor.
“It is for the first time in decades that Gujarat is witnessing the mobilisation of youth in anti-establishment protests,” said Mevani, one of the prominent dalit leaders in Gujarat. What is worrisome for the BJP, already in trouble for demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, is that both Patel and Mevani have made it clear that they are firmly opposed to the ruling party. While Mevani, 34, has had a meeting with Rahul Gandhi, Patel is expected to meet the Congress vice president after the legal team of the Congress gives an opinion on how the Patidars can be accorded reservation within the parameters of the Constitution.
The Patidars have been demanding OBC (other backward class) status since 2015. The BJP's inability to resolve the issue cost the party dear in the 2015 elections to district and taluka panchayats. The Congress, which had only one district panchayat, won 31 of 33 in 2015.
Patidar organisations close to the BJP allege that the agitation has become a private one. Patel, however, is unfazed. “There is so much unrest among the youth,” he said. Although he made it clear that he was not joining any political party, the 24-year-old said he would ask people to vote against the BJP.
Thakore, 40, has formally joined the Congress. “My aim is to ensure the victory of all 182 candidates of the Congress,” he said. The Congress in Gujarat seems to be more united following the exit of Shankersinh Vaghela, and the victory of senior leader Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha elections, despite Shah's efforts to ensure his defeat, has enthused the party workers.
The mood of the youth, who constitute nearly 40 per cent of the electorate, could be decisive. Devang Raval, a 19-year-old computer engineering student from Ahmedabad, said there were reasons for the youth to support the BJP. “If the BJP retains power, it will continue various schemes for students. The government has promised laptops and it is very important for an engineering student,” he said. Amit Thaker, state secretary of the BJP, said women and youth played a major role in building 'Brand Modi'. “Youth mobilisation was always there, but it was not noticed as it got subsumed under 'Brand Modi',” he said.
Varun Patel, who recently parted ways with Hardik Patel and joined the BJP, said the large-scale youth mobilisation was a result of the Patidar stir. But he said many of the agitators lacked political maturity. His views found support from Dhrumit Pandit, a second-year mechanical engineering student from Ahmedabad. He said there were many young people who blindly joined agitations without knowing whether the government was good or not. “Many do not know why they are supporting anti-government agitations,” he said. Pandit said programmes of the Modi government like Startup India and Stand-Up India were yielding results.
Mukesh Bharwad, vice president of the OBC, SC, ST Ekta Manch and a close aide of Thakore, challenged Pandit's views. He said if the people were so happy with the prime minister, then the rallies of Rahul Gandhi and the young anti-government leaders would not have attracted so many people.
Ahmedabad-based political analyst Prakash Shah said the BJP's winning formula of Mandal and mandir had been broken. “The youth is drifting away from it, which was not the case before 2014. Jobless growth is a reality, and at the Centre the BJP has not been able to perform as expected.” Prakash was not quite sure whether the presence of huge crowds in the public meetings of Patel, Thakore and Mevani would translate into anti-BJP votes, but he said the Congress could emerge much stronger with their support. Moreover, anything less than 150 seats would be an embarrassment for the BJP.
Sociologist Gaurang Jani said the three young leaders rose in popularity because of the absence of a youth icon in the BJP. “On the other hand, the youngsters are staying away from the Congress as it has been out of power for years. The support for the trio is also the result of the flawed economic policies of the government.” Jani said Gujarat had not witnessed such a strong political mobilisation of youth since the 1985 anti-reservation stir. In his view, the BJP has been caught napping. “It had taken Gujarat for granted.”