Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani said on Wednesday that he would campaign together with Patidar leader Hardik Patel for next month’s Gujarat Assembly polls in an effort to unite Patel and Dalit voters against the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Mevani, who made a halt in Delhi on Wednesday en route to Jharkhand for an event, said he would share the stage with Hardik Patel at a rally in Ahmedabad on December 6, the death anniversary of Dalit reformer and architect of India’s Constitution Babasaheb Ambedkar. The two leaders may address other events together before that, campaigning in the state’s reserved areas for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes starting November 26.
So far, Mevani, Patel and Other Backward Classes leader Alpesh Thakor have been working separately among the social groups they represent, their politics often at odds. However, the three are united in their aim to ensure the incumbent BJP government’s defeat in the contest for Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, which is a battle of prestige for the saffron party. While Thakor has joined the Congress, Mevani and Patel have maintained their distance from mainstream parties, though they have intermittently shown support for the Grand Old Party.
But as the election draws close, the young Dalit and Patidar leaders want to send out the message that they are not working at cross-purposes and that attempts by the BJP to drive a wedge between the two communities will not work.
As convenor of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, Hardik Patel emerged as a powerful leader when he spearheaded the Patel community’s February 2016 agitation seeking OBC status that would get them reservations in education and jobs. Alpesh Thakor’s Kshatriya Thakor Sena, on the other hand, resisted the Patidar demand for inclusion in the OBC category. Mevani, meanwhile, emerged as the face of Dalit resistance in Gujarat after the flogging of four scheduled caste youths by cow protection vigilantes in Una in July 2016 led to a statewide agitation.
Mevani admitted there are social contradictions between the Dalits, the Patels – traditionally a powerful, land-owning caste – and the backward classes but said the communities have set aside their differences to work towards their common goal. “They have all identified the BJP as a common enemy and that this has emerged as a uniting force,” Mevani said. He admitted that these contradictions are bound to resurface but “today, they are all united against the BJP”.
Mevani said disenchantment with the ruling BJP government is visible among all sections in Gujarat, from farmers to traders and even health workers. “Everybody has hit the streets...there is all-round level dissatisfaction with this government,” he said. A nervous BJP, according to Mevani, is attempting to deflect attention from the problems of slow growth and inequality and the criticism of the celebrated Gujarat model of development by raking up communal issues or raising extraneous matters like the so-called sex CD that surfaced recently, purportedly showing Hardik Patel with a woman.
He threw an open challenge to Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani to a public debate on development indices in the state. “Let them name the place and fix a time...we are ready,” Mevani told journalists in Delhi.
Mevani reiterated that he would not not join any political party but will work to defeat the BJP government. Mevani claimed his November 3 meeting with Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat was not to work out a tie-up but to discuss a charter of demands for Dalits, which the Congress agreed to include in its election manifesto.
“We are not campaigning for any party. Our message is clear...vote against the BJP,” he said, indirectly endorsing the Congress as the alternate choice before the people. Mevani maintained that their aim is to see that the BJP does not come back to power in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But to do so, he said, it is imperative to oust the BJP government from Modi’s home turf.