In the span of 18 months, Jignesh Mevani shot to fame as the face of Gujarat’s Dalit agitation, contested his first Assembly election at the age of 37, managed to win as an independent candidate and infused the Dalits of Gujarat with hope.

For the past year, political observers had grouped Mevani, Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Other Backward Classes leader Alpesh Thakor as the triad of new young leaders who could pose a threat to the BJP’s prospects in the 2017 Assembly election.

On Monday, both Mevani and Thakor delivered (Patel is not old enough to contest elections). While Thakor won the Radhanpur seat in Patan district, Mevani won the Dalit-majority Vadgam seat in north Gujarat’s Banaskantha district, defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate by nearly 19,696 votes.

His win is significant in a state that BJP has managed to retain for the sixth time in a row, but with a margin of just seven seats: the BJP secured 99 of Gujarat’s 182 seats while the Congress won 77. As an independent, Mevani has expressed support for the Congress.

A lawyer, social activist and former journalist, Mevani began his political career after July 2016, when four Dalit leather tanners were brutally assaulted by an upper-caste mob in Una for skinning a dead cow. Mevani was at the forefront of the unprecedented Dalit uprising that followed, and he set up the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti forum to campaign for Dalit rights across the state.

Now, Dalits in Gujarat see his win as a sign of hope. Placing faith in his youth and education, many Dalits expect Mevani to bring the issues of all marginalised communities to the forefront when he enters the Assembly as a legislator.

‘His win will inspire others’

“Because Mevani is young and educated leader, he will definitely be able to bring Dalit issues to the Assembly,” said Natubhai Parmar, a Dalit leader from Surendranagar district who played a significant role in mobilising protestors after the Una incident of 2016. Parmar believes that Mevani’s independent MLA status will also work to his advantage, because he won’t be seen as a part of the Opposition.

“Most importantly, his win in this election will inspire other young social workers to enter politics so that they can try to bring about change from within the system,” said Parmar.

Vasram Sarvaiya, one of the four Dalit leather tanners who were assaulted by the mob in Una, is overjoyed about Mevani’s victory in the Assembly election. “He did so much for us after the [Una] incident, I am sure he will be able to bring us justice,” said Sarvaiya, 25, who still waiting for the police to frame chargesheets in the Una assault cases and claims that 39 out of the 45 accused arrested in the cases are already out on bail. “I am waiting to see him talk about our case and other Dalit problems once he starts working as an MLA.”

Part of the ‘MAD’ factor

Dalit leader Martin Macwan sees Mevani’s victory as part of a symbolic “win” for the Congress and for marginalised communities in Gujarat, even though it is the BJP that will form the state government.

“The BJP wanted a Congress-free India, but in this election, the number of Scheduled Caste-reserved seats won by the Congress and independents increased from three to six,” said Mawan, the founder of Navsarjan Turst, a prominent Dalit rights organisation in Gujarat that was forced to dismantle after the central government cancelled its license to receive foreign funding in 2015.

Besides Vadgam, Dalit candidates won seats for the Congress in Dasada, Danilimda, Kodinar, Kalavad and Gadhada. In Dasada, Naushad Solanki defeated BJP’s Ramanlal Vora, a senior leader who has not only been an MLA for five years but is also the Speaker of the state Assembly. In Gadhada, Congress’s Pravinbhai Maru defeated Atmaram Parmar, BJP’s minister for social justice.

“And it’s not just the Dalits – even the Scheduled Tribe constituencies have seen a gain of two seats for the Congress and its allies compared with last time,” said Macwan. While the previous government had just one Muslim MLA, Macwan points out that the new government is set to have three Muslim legislators. “This has happened after a long time. I call it the ‘MAD’ factor – the anger of Muslims, Adivasis and Dalits, finally expressed,” he said.

Most of the leaders in these constituencies, claims Macwan, are relatively young and full of potential. “So far, there was no fight from the Dalits elected to the Assembly,” he said. “But these new young leaders are vocal. They will speak out about the issues that matter to the marginalised communities.”

‘What can Jignesh do alone?’

Not everyone in the Dalit community is optimistic about Mevani’s win.

Vasram Sarvaiya’s father, Balubhai Sarvaiya, who was also attacked in Una last year, is more disillusioned by Mevani’s successful foray into state politics. “Jignesh has sold himself by getting into politics – he should have stayed in the community to continue his work, like Hardik Patel is doing,” said Balubhai. “We had 13 Dalit MLAs the last time, but they did nothing for us. What will Jignesh do alone?”

Political scientist Ghanshyam Shah has a similar concern, even though he is confident of Mevani’s ability to bring people’s movements and rights into the halls of the Assembly. “But one individual cannot do much, especially given the kind of Assembly we have had in the past 15 years, where hardly anyone raises such issues,” said Shah, who is based in Ahmedabad. “He will try to raise many social issues in the Assembly, but the government cannot solve problems like unemployment.”

On his part, hours after his win, Mevani told NDTV that he would continue to work on the ground even as an MLA. “We [Patel, Thakor and Mevani] are not just representing particular castes but the people of Gujarat,” he said. “I will become the voice of the voiceless in Assembly but will continue my agitation.”