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Congress' caste equation fails to get it the numbers

The electoral strategy that the party had framed in the seventies after losing support of the Patel community can longer get it votes. The party has to come up with fresh ideas to get the votes of all communities, writes Aakar Patel.

india Updated: Dec 10, 2012 07:48 IST
Aakar Patel
Aakar Patel
Aakar Patel,Congress,gujarat assembly elections 2012

The grand electoral strategy of the Congress party in Gujarat is called KHAM. This is a coalition of the following castes and communities: Kshatriya/Harijan/Adivasi/Muslim.

The Dalit is still called Harijan in Gujarat because of Gandhi's influence over vocabulary. The tribal is called Adivasi in Gujarati and the most important caste in the Congress is the Kshatriya. Strangely, though it is an upper caste according to the Smritis, Kshatriya is an OBC caste in Gujarat, while the dominant peasant caste, Patel, is a so-called 'forward' caste.

There is usually an anti-reservation movement in Gujarat, rather than a pro-reservation one as in other states. This is because the dominant peasant caste does not demonstrate for reservations as happens in other states.

The Congress's KHAM strategy evolved in the 70s when it became clear that Patels were leaving the party. I have written about why this happened in an earlier piece. The big Congress leaders at the centre, and its chief ministers have been from the Kshatriya community, like Madhavsinh Solanki and his son Bharatsinh, and Shankarsinh Vaghela. The last named is a rebel from the BJP but has been in Congress for many years and is clearly at home here. Through the 1980s, KHAM proved a winning strategy, and the Congress kept winning.

The event that disturbed this coalition of castes was the BJP's pulling down of the Babri Masjid. The Ramjanmabhoomi movement was more popular in Gujarat than in the rest of India. It has remained popular even after the masjid was destroyed, which is extraordinary. In the rest of India, the movement ended after December 6, 1992. In Gujarat, the passion continued. Those killed on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra were ordinary Gujaratis returning from Kar Seva in Ayodhya.

Aggressive Hindutva was attractive to many within the KHAM fold and the Congress was in trouble. The caste-specific strategy was succumbing to the religion-specific strategy of BJP.

If we go through the list of the BJP's legislators in Gujarat, we come across many Kshatriya names. While the Kshatriya, who is non-vegetarian, does not have the same cultural abhorrence of Muslims that Patels do, he was attracted to the positive aspects of Hindutva.

A parallel development was that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's Ekal Vidyalaya (single teacher) movement. In Gujarat's tribal areas, this outreach brought many previously animist tribals into the Hindu fold.

It was reported that much of the violence against Muslim traders during the riots was committed by Gujarati tribals. This left only the Muslims as the core supporters of Congress, and the party can rely on their 10% coming to it. The rest of the coalition was in tatters, and has Congress has not won a majority here in the last 20 years. The Congress expectation seems to be that the old caste coalition will still hold if they are persistent. But this has not so far proved to be true.

Unless there is fresh thinking from the Congress, or unless the BJP mismanages its new-found support base, Gujarat can expect to be a BJP-led state for the future.

(Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist. The views expressed are personal.)

First Published: Dec 10, 2012 07:23 IST