The strategy of the Gujarat Congress for the upcoming Assembly election, scheduled for December 9 and 14, seems to be to "make all the enemy's enemies its friends". Though Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has turned all the dissenting voices against the BJP in his favour, it still appears unlikely that it will benefit the Congress enough to form a government in the state.
A quick rundown of the last two years shows us the rise of three young leaders - Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani - all politically independent to begin with. It is not clear whether it was a planned strategy or just a coincidence, but all these leaders, representing different communities, have emerged nearly at the same time to challenge the establishment.
With just a few weeks to go before the polling day, all three are aligned with the Congress. Last month, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor formally joined the Congress. Young Patidar leader, Hardik Patel, seeking reservation from the state government for the community under the OBC quota, is increasingly leaning towards the grand old party. On Friday evening, the well-articulate Dalit leader, Jignesh Mevani, also met Congress vice-president and heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, in south Gujarat. Mevani has neither formally joined the Congress nor announced his support for the party. But his mere appearance with Rahul Gandhi signals his approval for the party.
Let's dissect individually the three leaders and their possible impact at the polling booth. Alpesh is a self-anointed leader of the OBCs. He essentially leads a body called the Thakor Sena. Thakors form one of the 52 OBC communities in the state. According to Alpesh, they constitute more than 42 per cent of Gujarat's electorate. This estimate is often disputed by members of both parties as conclusive data about caste constitution is not available. Of this, the Thakor community constitutes a small section.
Even as Congress leaders are optimistic about Alpesh's inclusion, many admit behind closed doors that his influence may not extend beyond the Thakor community. OBC votes have been divided between the BJP and the Congress in recent years. Each of these communities under the OBC banner has different issues and it is understandably difficult to unite all to vote similarly. Thakor has tried to bring them on the same platform against alchoholism. The turnout at his rallies has been good, but he is yet to face a stiff electoral battle.
There's much ado over the popularity of Hardik Patel, seen by the crowds at his rally. Patidars are believed to constitute between 17 and 18 per cent of the electorate. Based on past electoral data, Patels are believed to vote en masse for or against a candidate. Though Hardik draws huge crowds at his rallies, especially the youth, senior BJP as well as Congress leaders have expressed doubts over whether he can channelise this angst against the BJP into votes for the Congress.
Just ahead of the 2012 assembly polls, former BJP chief minister of Gujarat Keshubhai Patel launched the Gujarat Parivartan Party. It was also essentially a Patidar-oriented political front. It contested all 182 seats, but won only two. The party merged with the BJP in less than two years.
This is important to note as Keshubhai was believed to be a towering Patidar leader in Gujarat, who led the BJP to victory in the 1990s. The reason cited for his failure in 2012 was that the Patidars do not want to be part of the Opposition benches even if they may have problems with the BJP. For them logic at the polling booth overpowers emotions. The outpouring at Hardik's rally is more about high-octane emotion, and less about logic.
Mevani gained prominence in the public eye around two years ago. A shocking incident in which a few Dalith youth were being mercilessly beaten up raised the heckles of the country. Mevani voiced the angst of the community and led another high-profile campaign against the establishment. His rallying ground was seeking land from the government for agriculture, which was granted to them on paper, but not in practice due to the prevailing social discriminations, as well as political and administrative apathy at the ground-level.
This was the basis to unite the 18 different communities that fall under the Schedule Caste. But this fizzled out within a few months. Extreme poverty and absence of literacy among the youth are touted to be the reasons for it. The community members are busy fending for a day's square meal so they have no time to attend rallies. Also, the presence of hierarchy within the Dalit community plays a role. Those who perceive themselves to be "above the other" do not want to be clubbed. For an already marginalised populace, this social one-upmanship doesn't bode well.
Moreover, though Dalits don't necessarily vote en masse, they are essentially Congress voters. It is also worth keeping in mind that the Dalit population isn't more than 7 per cent of the electorate. This makes the community a negligible political force in state politics, a fact Mevani is well aware of. He has therefore been focusing on creating a national identity for himself. He has been spending considerable time in states such as Kerala, where the Schedule Castes are a sizeable part of the population. He aims to articulate the Dalit voice as a force to reckon with in the 2019 elections.
An understated factor is Congress veteran Shankersinh Vaghela, who has also launched his own political front, Jan Vikalp. This front is expected to eat into the Congress's vote share as he belongs to the Kshatriya community that falls under the OBC category. Another front is the Aam Aadmi Party, which is also an option for anti-BJP voters. As an astute political player, the BJP is expected to strategically field independent candidates on seats where it anticipates angst against it to be high. This would channelise votes in the party's favour and keep the Congress candidate from winning.
When these facts are collated, it emerges that the Congress' strategy of keeping these dissenting voices in its camp is more of a damage-control measure than building strength in itself. The best the Congress is likely to gain from these "acquisitions" is an increase in its tally in the house.
The difference in the vote share between BJP and Congress in 2012 was a sizeable 9 per cent. Bridging this gap with political novices is expecting a lot. The most decisive factor for a party to be voted to power is the voters' belief that if it is elected, the party can keep its promises. Whipping up anti-BJP sentiments can certainly divert a section of voters, but to swing the election, the Congress either needs a wave or a strong chief ministerial candidate who can appeal to voters across the rural-urban divide. At the moment, both appear elusive.