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Caste equations: Will Congress’ best-laid plans work out in north Gujarat?

The Patidar agitation and the counter-OBC movement spearheaded by Alpesh Thakore both have their roots in north Gujarat, and the two communities enjoy a strong presence here.

assembly elections Updated: Dec 13, 2017 22:24 IST
Ketaki Ghoge
Ketaki Ghoge
Hindustan Times, Mehsana/Patan/Banaskantha
Gujarat elections,North Gujarat,Patidars
In OBC-dominated villages, which are Congress strongholds too, one sees willingness to accommodate the Patidar agitation for a larger cause.(PTI Photo)

The Congress’ bid to bring opposing communities of Patidars and the Other Backward Caste (OBC) under its umbrella will be put to the test when north Gujarat goes to the polls on Thursday.

This attempt at social engineering has been the defining mark of the 2017 Gujarat assembly polls, and its success or failure will be best gauged in the six districts and 32 assembly constituencies that form this belt.

The Patidar agitation and the counter-OBC movement spearheaded by Alpesh Thakore both have their roots in north Gujarat, and the two communities enjoy a strong presence here. Besides them, Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani is also contesting from this region with Congress backing.

If all goes as planned, the alignment should further boost the Congress’ prospects in a region that it usually does well in. In the 2012 polls, the Congress won 17 of the 32 seats here while the BJP bagged 15. It, however, remains to be seen how the caste combination of Patidars and OBCs – who have largely voted at cross purposes and have opposing agendas on reservation – works on the ground.

In Mehsana district, a stronghold of Patidars (especially Kadwa Patels), there is visible anger against the ruling party. Many voters, especially youngsters, are willing to accommodate Thakore as long as it serves their larger agenda.

“He (Alpesh Thakore) is fighting for his community while we are fighting for ours. We are okay with him because our immediate objective is to ensure that the BJP stays out of power. While the Congress has at least promised to consider a special quota for Patidars, the BJP refuses to even do that,” says 26-year-old Amit Patel from Panchot village. He is one of the many ardent supporters of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti head Hardik Patel in the region.

Amit’s view is echoed by several youngsters in the villages around Mehsana town, including Balol, Karsanpura, Lakhwa and Kadwashan. However, the older folk are not as opposed to the BJP.

“Many youngsters, including my son, are angry but we know that the BJP will come to power at the end of the day. We are not sure if we can trust the Congress. We have seen their government after all, while our sons haven’t,” says Jayeshbhai Patel, a farmer from Balol. He and his son may not vote for the same party in the coming polls.

In OBC-dominated villages, which are Congress strongholds too, one sees willingness to accommodate the Patidar agitation for a larger cause. “We have been unhappy with the ruling party so far, and now they (Patidars) are also disenchanted. They are better off than us financially as well as socially, but we are okay with their quota demand as long as what’s ours is not given to them. Their votes will only help overthrow the BJP government,” says Bhagwati Desai, an ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) worker and Congress supporter from Harij in Patan district.

However, while the OBCs constitute 40% of the population, they are an unwieldy group of 147 different castes who do not speak in one voice. That rules out voting en bloc for any party.

Meanwhile, the saffron party is also trying to minimise its losses in the region. “The BJP strategically consolidated the non-Thakore OBCs, mainly Chaudhary and Anjana Patels, and the Rabari community ahead of the elections. This is a big segment and, together, can neutralise any Patidar or Thakore challenge,” says Hari Desai, a political analyst from Ahmedabad.

Desai claims there is a political divide in the Patidar and Thakore communities. “The BJP has tried to minimise its losses by giving seats to several Patidar leaders and picking its representatives from the Thakore community,” he adds.

Besides the generational divide, the split in the Patidar community runs along regional and sub-sectarian lines. Nevertheless, it would be amiss to ignore the fact that while 80% of the community earlier voted for the BJP, roughly half of them seem to be cozying up to the Congress now.

“While Kadwa Patels support Hardik, Anjana Patels – who fall in the OBC category – side with the BJP. Leuva Patels may or may not support Hardik. Similarly, Patidars from central Gujarat – who weren’t impacted by rural distress or alleged police excesses – may not support the Congress, but those from north Gujarat are likely to,” says Ghanshyam Shah, another political analyst.

First Published: Dec 13, 2017 22:23 IST