The Rip Van winkles

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Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor speak the language of day-before-yesterday and not of the 21st century. Their charter of grievances shows that India faces the same challenges today that it did in 1947. Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr writes

It is the traditional baptism by fire in politics.

Agitate over an issue that touches a common chord among sections of the people and become the rising political star. Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor followed the highway of agitation to reach political stardom. Each of them is separated by a decade, with Patel (born 1993) being the youngest, and Thakor (born 1975) the oldest. Mevani (born 1982) stands between the two in terms of generations.

The first to get off the ground was Patel when, just out of college, he took over the Patidar agitation in 2016 demanding reservations in government jobs for what is seen as the dominant and influential community in the state. Thakor came into the picture when he organised the OBC, SC, ST (OSS) Ekta Manch in opposition to the Patidar agitation for reservations. Mevani came on the scene protesting the killing of Dalits in Una near Rajkot by gau-rakshaks or cow vigilantes.

Boiling Over

The social and economic discontent boiled over after Narendra Modi moved to Delhi as prime minister in the summer of 2014 after serving the state as chief minister for 12 years. Gujarat was apparently politically stable and economically vibrant. But the moment Modi left the stage, trouble broke out.

On the face of it, it is a mere coincidence that Modi’s ‘Gujarat model’ broke down in a post-Modi Gujarat. It can be reasonably inferred that economic slowdown has been conspicuous in the country, and Gujarat could not be an exception, from 2013 onwards.

Prime Minister Modi has not been able to deal with it at the national level, and Modi’s successor chief ministers Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani could not deal with it at the state level. It is tempting to believe that once strong-man Modi left Gujarat, all hell broke loose in the state.

The BJP’s victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll unloosened the Hindutva fanatics like the cow vigilantes. Chief minister Modi kept the Hindutva fanatics on the leash after the 2002 anti-Muslim riots.

Blazing Guns

Political commentators have concluded that Patel, Mevani and Thakor were the three musketeers who were instrumental in the impressive electoral performance of the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi in the December 2017 state assembly elections. This assumption makes sense, but only partially. The three could not fully mobilise the vote of the Patels, Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The BJP in Gujarat had survived the Patel-Mevani-Thakor scare.

There is no doubt, however, that there was a scare and no one felt it more keenly than Narendra Modi himself, in the second phase of electioneering as well as after the election. He clearly sensed the trouble that was brewing along caste lines.

The connect between these agitators and Congress is quite clear. Patel supported the Congress, Mevani was supported by the Congress when he contested as an independent, and Thakor joined the Congress.

Mevani and Thakor won their seats. Patel did not contest because he was not yet 25, the minimum age required to contest an election. He told the Congress social media team in Mumbai on February 23, 2018, that “I am not a member of the Congress, but I will help and support Congress.”

What unites the three agitators is their strong anti-BJP-ism, something akin to the anti-Congress-ism of yore, because each for his own reason holds the right-wing party responsible for the woes of their respective castes.

Birth Connects

There is also the interesting fact that these three were born at transition points in the country’s history of the last 45 years. Thakor was born in the year when Indira Gandhi had imposed Emergency and suspended the Fundamental Rights. Mevani was born when Indira Gandhi after her return to office started to discard socialism and Patel was born when India had moved away from socialism and economic liberalisation was up and running under the then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao.

Ironically, Patel, Thakor and Mevani are fighting on the age-old issue of caste divisions and economic deprivation nearly 25 years after economic liberalisation, which harks back to the 1960s and 1970s. It seems that India might have progressed on the economic front, but it has remained backward on the social front because age-old caste identities and caste discrimination continues unabated.

Prognosis

It is inevitable that Patel, Mevani and Thakor will not remain the agitators that they have been in the years to come. The emphasis of their protests will change and so will the rhetoric. The change can already be seen in the language of Mevani. Speaking at a Dalit rally in Jind, Haryana, on March 19, 2018, he said that it is not enough to fight for the self-respect of Dalits. They need more than that. They need land, they need shelter, they need education and healthcare.

“If we don’t have proper shelters, what will the dignity amount to? We have self-respect, but no land to till. If we have no education and good healthcare, what will we do with our self-respect? The struggle is not just about our self-respect, but existence too.”

Patel’s demand for reservations for Patidars in government jobs and Thakor’s opposition to it would reveal that all the three are on the same page. The Congress party leaders seem to think that they can manage the caste contradictions presented by these three next generation leaders. The BJP fears, and Modi was quite explicit about this, that Gujarati society is being divided on caste lines.

The BJP wants to use its Hindutva ideology to blur the caste distinctions. But it is clear that economic development has not been the leveller that it should have been. Gujarat cannot escape the challenge of rising inequality between classes and castes that unbridled economic liberalisation brings with it.

Thakor, a more seasoned agitator than the other two, speaking in the debate on the Budget in Gujarat Assembly, was eloquent about larger sections of people being denied aid, while private builders benefit hugely from government largesse.

Speaking on March 7, 2018, in the assembly, he held forth: “There is nothing in this budget for anganwadi workers, midday meal workers, ASHA workers, computer operators or gram panchayat workers. The government does not have money to pay to its employees or marginalised communities, but it gives crores of rupees to builders. There is nothing in this budget for the 30 lakh unemployed youth. In flood-affected areas of Banaskantha and Patan, middlemen made money while victims didn’t get what was meant for them. For the OBC welfare agency, there is hardly any allocation. It needs to be around Rs 1,000 crore.”

Outside Mainstream

What is interesting about the emergence of Patel, Mevani and Thakor is the fact that circumstances have thrown up a new set of leaders in the state and all of them come from outside the political mainstream. They do not belong to existing political parties, though Patel’s father was in the BJP and Thakor’s father was with the Congress. But Patel and Thakor did not start out as members of their fathers’ parties. They forged their political identity on their own.

It has generally been the case that new political leaders in India had always emerged through agitations. This has been true of the Freedom Movement. The non-cooperation movement of 1920, the civil disobedience movement of 1930 and the Quit India movement of 1942 threw up leaders. After Independence, the JP movement of the early 1970s gave birth to another set of leaders. And Anna Hazare’s Jan Lok Pal agitation gave rise to new leaders like Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi.

Dissenters and agitators of today become the pillars of political establishment of tomorrow. It is a natural progression. It is only the romantics who would bemoan the fact that it is a betrayal when rebels join the mainstream.

Congress in Gujarat will benefit hugely by the rebellious politics of Patel, Mevani and Thakor. The party can hope to challenge the decades-long BJP domination of Gujarat through these three outsiders.

What is sad is that these young rebels speak the language of day-before-yesterday. There is nothing 21st century about them. It is not the fault of Patel, Mevani and Thakor that they speak about poverty, deprivation and demand government aid and jobs. They are holding a mirror to the Indian reality. It shows poverty and lack of educational skills remain just the big challenge of India in 2018 that it was in 1947 when the country became independent. The demands should have been for an improved standard of life and not a plea for basic amenities like food, shelter and clothes.

Whatever their future trajectories, Patel, Mevani and Thakor show us that India has a long way to go before it can claim to be a developed country. The Patels, Mevanis and Thakors of the future should be speaking of different grievances and challenges and not the same as those in 1947 and in 2018.

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