The Assembly polls in Gujarat will undoubtedly test whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi retains his hold on the electorate in his home state or whether Congress vice-president and party president-to-be Rahul Gandhi begins from here his slow and tortuous political climb after the debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and a series of state polls thereafter.
Apart from Modi and Rahul, the December polls will also test whether the new set of subaltern leaders in the state have in them the power to hold on or will they disappear from the political landscape as quickly as they surfaced. Will they remain sectoral chiefs guarding their segmented turfs or will they clutch on to major parties for survival? Will they become victims of their inner conflicts or evolve into larger entities to displace their bigger adversaries? Or will they be swallowed by the big fish in the game?
On the scanner are Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani.
Patel is the convener of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), which has been agitating for reservations for the approximately 13 per cent Patidar community that has a substantial presence in about 52 Assembly constituencies.
Alpesh Thakor of the OBC, SC and ST Ekta Manch and Kshatriya Thakor Sena propagate a counter-narrative to that of Patel on behalf of the state's approximately 51 per cent OBC population. Although there are about 146 castes in the OBCs, a majority are Thakor and Kolis who impact 68 seats especially in central and north Gujarat while the community as a whole influences about 110 of the 182 Assembly seats.
Jignesh Mevani, a lawyer-cum-activist of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, has become the face of the 7 per cent Dalits, some of whom have been victimised in the name of gau raksha.
Already Thakor, who also leads an anti-liquor campaign, has joined the Congress which has been wooing him, Patel and Mevani to form a united front and prevent a split in the anti-BJP votes. Thakor cited the Congress' promise to heed to his community's demands as the reason for subsuming his identity. In return, he reportedly sought tickets and positions for himself and his supporters.
Although Thakor, Patel and Mevani share a common intent to defeat the BJP, in making the first move, the OBC leader also sought to prevent an open Congress-Patidar tie-up. As leaders on the opposite side of the reservation debate - with Patel seeking a quota for Patidars and Thakor intent on safeguarding the interests and quotas of OBCs, SCs and STs in education and government jobs - only one of them could have openly aligned with the Congress.
In joining the Congress, Thakor however risks being swallowed by the party and its diktats. While a victory would vindicate his decision, a defeat could undermine his credibility and make his resurrection difficult.
Notwithstanding Thakor's first-mover advantage over Patel and other subaltern rivals, there are varying and potentially explosive views within PAAS and Patidars about the Congress and elections. A section wants PAAS to contest; another is keen to join hands with the Congress, a third is against a tie-up while a fourth favours a non-Congress, non-BJP third front.
Conscious that he cannot defeat the BJP alone, Patel has been looking for an understanding with the Congress. In September, he welcomed Rahul's yatra in Saurashtra, the Patel dominated groundnut producing region, where farmers are distressed. He met senior Congress leaders and is pressurising the party to clear its stand on his primary demand of reservations for Patidars within the 27 per cent OBC quota.
But the Congress cannot agree to Patel's demand because of the SC cap on quotas at 50 per cent and Thakor's refusal to share the 27 per cent OBC pie with Patidars. With polls fast approaching, it is desperately looking for a formula that Patel can accept, the numerically larger OBCs cannot oppose and the court will not object. Its initial proposal of a 20 per cent quota under the economically backward classes was rejected by Patel. Its latest offer lies outside the 27 per cent ambit and talks, among other options, of a need-based 20 per cent quota under Article 31 and 38(2) of the Constitution under which an Assembly passes a law and forwards it for the President's approval which cannot be challenged in court.
As both sides seek the middle ground, Patel can back the Congress only if it publicly supports his quota demand. Though by opposing the BJP, he would tacitly be supporting Congress' candidates. Too young to contest, he is also against PAAS's electoral debut lest another leader overtake or replace him.
The Congress is wooing Thakor, Patel and Mevani in its desperation to somehow turn its fortunes around in Gujarat and on the national stage. It got just 44 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and last won Gujarat in 1985 when the Madhavsinh Solanki-crafted social alliance of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims (KHAM) fetched it 149 seats. The election, however, saw the economically and politically dominant Patidars jump over to the BJP.
It now hopes to build on the support it got from the rural and poor members of the Patidar community in the 2015 urban and rural body elections. Besides, it does not want a repeat of the 2012 scenario when Keshubhai Patel's mainly Patidar outfit, Gujarat Parivartan Party, won just 3.7 per cent votes and a couple of seats but split the anti-BJP votes and damaged the Congress in over a dozen constituencies.
Mevani too faces an uncomfortable choice. There is the attraction of building a Dalit-Muslim compact with the Congress which can impact around 30 seats (10 are reserved for SCs) and send a powerful political message for the 2018 Assembly polls in BJP-ruled Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and even beyond.
But then the Dalits have their own problems with OBCs and Patels. And any tie-up, open or tacit, would have to keep this in mind now that Thakor is in the Congress and Patel is waiting to take a call. The big question then is whether Mevani can politically survive on his own.
With Gujarat in a churn, the BJP also tried to mollify these disgruntled leaders. It could dominate the state only after it added SCs, STs and OBCs to its upper caste support base and any dent in it now would give a boost to the Congress, which is also trying to rope in parties such as Sharad Yadav's JD-U.
The first warning came 18 months after the 2014 victory when in 2015 the Congress won 24 district panchayats while the BJP could muster just six and though it captured six municipal corporations, its victory margin fell. A year later, Anandiben Patel had to quit as chief minister following a Dalit upsurge against the assault on members of their community. And now OBC leader Thakor is in the Congress camp.
For two decades the Patidars and Patels, particularly the Leuvas and Kadvas (constituting about 60 per cent and 40 per cent of the community) had rallied behind the BJP so much so that one-third BJP MLAs and seven senior cabinet ministers are Patels.
Since Hardik is a Kadva Patel, it now remains to be seen how much he and his community can damage the BJP which is already trying to battle the odds of anti-incumbency, demonetisation and GST and fighting an election in which Modi is no longer the CM candidate.
The BJP tried to undo the damage. In April 2016, the Gujarat government declared a 10 per cent quota for the economically backward Patidars and other castes in educational institutions which PAAS rejected as a "lollipop" and the Gujarat High Court struck down as unconstitutional. And though it also withdrew the police cases against Patidar leaders, the wounds had already cut deep, especially with Patel being charged with sedition. Recent allegations of the BJP trying to "buy" some Patidar leaders have added to the growing distrust.
Earlier this year, it launched the Adivasi Vikas Gaurav Yatra to woo the approximately 15 per cent tribal community, which affects 27 seats. It also hopes that the Aam Aadmi Party and former Congressman Shankersinh Vaghela - who influences parts of north Gujarat - would cut into the Congress and anti-BJP votes.