On January 4, I reached Mumbai’s Bhaidas Auditorium to listen to Jignesh Mevani. The young and emerging Dalit leader was scheduled to address a student conference. Instead, I met a deluge of police officers guarding the auditorium and detaining those who had turned up to listen to him.
A warrant was issued against Mevani. But the same police officers, who sternly said the instructions have come from the chief minister’s office, were tacitly hoping they would be spared from arresting Mevani.
Had Mevani been arrested in such a manner, the entire state, which was already grappling with the Bhima Koregaon violence, would have erupted against the government. Eventually, Mevani successfully managed to reach Gujarat and the Mumbai Police heaved a sigh of relief.
The recently elected MLA from Gujarat has managed to make several people nervous. Of course, the BJP takes the lead in this regard. I have personally seen the ruling party’s eagerness to "fix" Mevani during his Mumbai event.
Dalit leader and Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani addressing the Youth Hunkar rally in New Delhi. (Credit: PTI photo)
He was supposed to speak in front of students. But the state government reacted as if he had planned a rally at Shivaji Park. An FIR, on flimsy grounds, was filed against him in Pune, where he delivered a passionate speech in front of a packed crowd at Shaniwar Wada. Yes, his speech was aggressive, but not provocative. He is not the first leader to appeal to his fellow citizens to take to the streets to safeguard our fundamental rights. He won’t be the last leader either.
When his Yuva Hunkar rally in Delhi went ahead despite police denying permission, the "North Korean channels" called, or rather screamed, it a flop show. The entire discourse merely confirms the fact that Mevani has managed to get under the skin of the Modi government.
One must visit Gujarat to be able to comprehend the BJP’s nervousness. Two years ago, Mevani burst into the political scene during the Una agitation. He ensured the BJP couldn’t escape the consequences of the flogging of Dalits by cow vigilantes (I would rather call them cow terrorists), and led an agitation that took the entire country by storm. With that he managed to change the political narrative of a poll-bound Gujarat.
Mevani is a lawyer. He has practised journalism for a while, and has also been an assistant to renowned human rights lawyer Mukul Sinha. He has had a ringside view of the unfolding of Gujarat politics, including the 2002 riots. He is aware of the magnitude of the challenges in front of him, which is why he didn’t think twice before accepting aid from the Congress while contesting the Assembly elections from Vadgam as an independent candidate. However, he refused to contest on the Congress symbol, which indicates his future strategy.
Vadgam was a litmus test for Mevani. It is 300km from Una. He was aware that he wouldn’t be able pitch his entire campaign on the agitation alone. He got in touch with Rahul Gandhi, and the Congress president, gauging the political climate, agreed not to field any candidate from his party, thereby supporting Mevani's candidature.
Vadgam has been a Congress bastion. With 2.6 lakh voters, it has 25 per cent Muslim and 16 per cent Dalit population. Thakurs, Patels, Chaudharis are other prominent communities. Even when the Modi wave was at its peak, the Congress had managed to keep Vadgam, which is why the state Congress leaders were reluctant to let it go. But Rahul Gandhi and Ashok Gehlot, Congress' general secretary in-charge of Gujarat, persuaded the state leaders and gave a different seat to the local MLA. A former Congress MLA even rebelled in Vadgam allegedly at the behest of the BJP.
Vadgam was a battle of prestige. Mevani’s defeat would have sent a political message. Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani, UP CM Yogi Adityanath and a host of other BJP bigwigs held rallies in the constituency, hoping to spread a poisonous campaign against Mevani.
They came up with all kinds of lies - Mevani has cheated on a Muslim girl, he has ties with terrorists, he would misuse his power to enforce atrocious acts against the upper castes, he is not a genuine Ambedkarite - several such pamphlets were circulated in his constituency. Mevani did not have a network of his own to take on this vicious campaign against him. But Congress workers and left-liberal activists around the country lend their support.
The Muslims in Vadgam are a trading community. Their relatives in Mumbai had travelled to the constituency as well to campaign for Mevani. Experiences shared by the activists, who partly steered the campaign, makes this election a historic one.
On the one hand, there was power, muscle and money. On the other, there was people’s will and smart politics. Rarely do we see people’s power emerging victorious in a battle like this. But the electorate of Vadgam pleasantly surprised all of us. Mevani himself wasn’t sure of such a convincing victory.
It may have been a local election, but its consequences were nationwide. It proved that the Modi-Shah duo isn’t unbeatable. And that is what the BJP is nervous about. This pattern, if replicated nationwide, could make the BJP’s position untenable. The attacks on Mevani are a result of this insecurity. JNU's Kanhaiya Kumar, too, was at the receiving end of this vitriol, but Mevani appears more threatening to the BJP because he electorally overcame the party's might.
For the past 15 years, the BJP has benefited from an invisible opposition in Gujarat. Mevani’s presence in the Assembly would change that. By raising uncomfortable issues, he can corner the state government.
More importantly, Mevani is also exposing the BJP’s long-term plan of making Muslims, Christians and others electorally irrelevant by stitching a Hindu coalition, something they managed to do successfully in Uttar Pradesh. Mevani’s popularity derails the BJP's plan, and makes it difficult for the party to get a substantial Dalit vote bank into its fold.
Akin to the BJP, a few established Dalit leaders too appear to be envious of Mevani’s rising popularity.
The Ambedkarites who had taken to the streets to condemn the violence on Dalits during the 200th anniversary of Bhima Koregaon battle looked up to Mevani. It was a spontaneous agitation. It would have happened irrespective of the leaders. Prakash Ambedkar was merely at the right place at the right time. Ramdas Athawale, minister in Modi cabinet, too, was forced to give a statement in support of Mevani because the workers of his party - Republican Party of India - had also hit the streets.
LJP's Ram Vilas Paswan and BJP's Udit Raj also sailed in the same boat. These veteran Dalit leaders, who were earlier used by the Congress, are now close to the BJP. After BR Ambedkar’s demise, Dalit leaders have been repeatedly manipulated by the two main political parties. That is why the Dalit Panther movement in Maharashtra during the 1970s was wholeheartedly endorsed by youngsters. Now, they are backing Mevani.
There will be attempts to buy him off as well. How Mevani deals with it would determine his future. Analysts have already started to compare him with Kanshi Ram. But I think it is too early to make such comparisons. Kanshi Ram had built a robust BAMCEF (All India Backward And Minority Communities Employees Federation) before entering politics, which ended up being the backbone of his political career. Mevani doesn’t have any such backing.
If he intends to go national, he will have to build an organisation, or seek support from an existing one. Else, the Mevani juggernaut will be limited to Gujarat only.