In 2017, when three youths emerged on the political scene of Gujarat as leaders, having led successful agitations, the BJP appeared shaken, given that Assembly elections were scheduled that year’s end.
Five years later, two of the three – Hardik Patel, who led the Patidar quota agitation and is now a working president of the Congress, and Alpesh Thakor, who led the OBC agitation and is now with the BJP – do not worry the ruling party , as much as Jignesh Mevani. A former journalist, lawyer, activist and now independent MLA from the reserved Vadgam constituency of Gujarat, Mevani’s “Left leanings” put him far out of the BJP reach.
Mevani, who has pledged support to the Congress, has been slapped with two criminal cases in Assam where the BJP is in power and is currently in police remand. The MLA, who is under police protection provided by the Gujarat government since 2017, following a ‘security assessment’, was picked up by the Assam Police late in the night last week from the government circuit house in Palanpur following an FIR objecting to a tweet of his that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A vocal critic of the BJP and its ideological fountainhead RSS not only in Gujarat but also other states, Mevani, 42, had come into the spotlight following an agitation he led on the public flogging of Dalits in Una, Gujarat, in 2016.
Many BJP leaders admit the party has not been comfortable with Mevani’s rise. Says a senior BJP leader: “From the beginning, Hardik and Alpesh have not been much of a concern for the party. Ideologically, the two are not very distant from our party’s principles. But, because of his Leftist thought, Mevani symbolises a culture alien to Gujarati society politically. Our party is worried about the seeds of this doctrine, although Mevani is almost part of the Congress now.” Mevani pledged support to the Congress last year though he remains an independent MLA, and is expected to get a ticket from the Congress in the coming election.
Says a political observer based in the state, “Out of the three youth leaders, the BJP has already got Alpesh within its fold. Hardik is severely dissatisfied with the Congress’s state leadership and is praising the BJP now. Mevani is the only one who looks certain of not joining or aligning with the BJP.”
Besides, the observer points out, “As the BJP tries to dismantle the Congress across the country, Mevani is one of the key figures of a new young team Rahul Gandhi is trying to build to revive the party.”
A senior Gujarat BJP leader, however, denies that the party is particularly concerned about Mevani. “I don’t think there is a specific ploy to tackle him by our party. In fact, there are certain persons with whom our party does not bother negotiating at all due to fundamental differences with them. And Mevani is one of those few people in Gujarat.”
The leader also notes that Mevani has been around taking on the government for long. “He has never been targeted for that.”
Another BJP leader argues that rather than helping the BJP, the arrest will only aid Mevani. “Politically he looked finished before these cases were registered against him. The cases have provided him oxygen to survive. He holds only nuisance value in the political scenario of Gujarat, but his voice holds importance in places with a strong presence of Dalits, Muslims and tribals outside Gujarat.”
As per this leader, the only reason police may have booked Mevani is that “something very serious must have been found against him”.
There is another reason Mevani is different from Hardik and Alpesh. Unlike the latter two, who represent Patels and OBCs, communities that matter for the BJP, Mevani is a Dalit, who form only about 7% of the state population.
The BJP does not fear the impact of the Dalit anger in Gujarat so much as the community has always traditionally aligned with the Congress. The Patels, who form 12% of the state’s population, have been traditionally BJP loyalists. The OBCs constitute over 50% of the population and tribals 14%.
Which is why the BJP government in Gujarat had moved quickly to appoint a commission for unreserved classes following the Hardik-led Patidar agitation. Recently the Bhupendra Patel government filed applications in courts for withdrawal of 10 of the 200-odd cases against Patidars related to the 2015 quota agitation, a day before Hardik was to launch an agitation for the same. After the magisterial court refused to withdraw one of the 10 cases on Monday, in which Hardik is an accused, the state moved the Sessions Court challenging the magistrate’s order.
This is a contrast to the government’s reaction on issues regarding Dalits. An inquiry report by a former IAS officer on three Dalits shot during a protest in Tangadh in 2012 has not been made public by the government. In 2019 a Special Court in Deesa of Banaskantha district directed the Social Welfare Department to recover the compensation amount handed out to Dalit victims in three cases under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, after two of the cases could not be established in court while one was only partially established. The Gujarat government is yet to appeal against this order.
The BJP, that does not have even a tall Dalit leader, recently inducted Manibhai Vaghela. The latter had incidentally left the Congress after the party backed Mevani from Vadgam seat in the 2017 Assembly elections. Vaghela had been the sitting MLA from the seat.
The Congress has not been able to drum up much noise over the Mevani arrest. While Gujarat PCC president Jagdish Thakor had rushed to the airport, from where Mevani was being taken to Assam, its protests since have been tepid. The party’s legal team is, however, fighting his case in Assam.
Manish Doshi, the spokesperson of the Gujarat Congress, says the party is fully behind Mevani. “This perception (that the Congress is not raising the issue of Mevani’s arrest as it should) is being created by limited persons who are ideologically not with the party. We have held protests across the state. The party has also provided the best of lawyers to him,” he says.
And the agitation goes beyond Mevani, Doshi adds. “Our fight is against the autocracy being implemented by the BJP. Today, it is Mevani, tomorrow, it could be someone else. The Congress has been raising the issue and will continue to do so in the coming days and we seek the cooperation of all in it.”
Others believe that much as the BJP might try to downplay Mevani, the party would leave no stone unturned to ensure that he is not active in Gujarat during the Assembly elections. “He is one of the few Congress leaders in Gujarat with integrity who commands respect among youths. Amid top Gujarat Congress leaders, who are mostly sons of prominent Congressmen, Mevani is a man who has come up on his own… His imprisonment in criminal cases in a far-flung state like Assam would immensely affect Mevani’s mobility in Gujarat,” an Ahmedabad -based activist says.
Some feel that Mevani’s arrest might be a signal that there may be “early elections in Gujarat”. “The BJP might be trying to keep him occupied in criminal cases so that he cannot fully participate in the elections. The BJP would also like to see his back so that he does not become a part of the Gujarat Assembly again,” says an observer.
Yagnesh Dave, the media cell convenor of the Gujarat BJP, says it is wrong to drag the party into the Mevani case. “Our party has no serious issue with him (Mevani). If it had, then the Gujarat BJP would have lodged a complaint against him. As far as the Gujarat BJP is concerned, he is an honorable MLA from Vadgam.”
On the case against Mevani, Dave says: “Legal action must have been taken after some complaint of violation of law there. The Gujarat government or Gujarat BJP is not concerned with that.”