An Ahmedabad-based journalist quipped that the Congress had taken to HAJ this Assembly election in Gujarat. His reference was to the Hardik (Patel)-Alpesh (Thakore)-Jignesh (Mevani) trio which has cast its lot with the party and on whose traction the Congress is seeking to return to power after more than two decades in the State.
Hardik and Jignesh have their own reasons for opposing the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Patidar leader wants reservations for his community which the BJP is unwilling to commit to. He is also upset with the state action against the pro-quota demonstrations over the last couple of years.
Jignesh is a Scheduled Castes leader and is fuming over the Una incident in which a cow vigilante group had publicly flogged members of the caste in July last year, with the State authorities allegedly doing little to punish the culprits and certain members of the Union Government terming the matter as a “small incident”.
There is no indication that the other intermediate castes which are part of the OBCs are necessarily backing Alpesh Thakore, though he claims to be the leader of the larger OBC formulation.
But why is Alpesh Thakore a member of this bandwagon? The community he represents is part of the Other Backward Class (OBC) which enjoys the reservation benefit. His grievance, therefore, is not in common with that of Hardik Patel’s. There have been no serious reported cases of violence or discrimination against the OBCs in Gujarat during the BJP rule, and, thus, he has no cause to fret like Jignesh Mevani. It is this lack of a definable purpose that makes Alpesh the odd man out. And yet, he has had his share of glory under the sun when he was recently inducted into the Congress at a high-profile function in the presence of no less a figure than Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi.
The OBCs comprise around 40 per cent of the State’s population and they are spread across Gujarat, which makes them all the more critical in terms of seats. It is generally believed that the OBCs can influence results in more than 70 of the Assembly 182 seats — higher than any other single group can. But the Thakore community is only one of the many OBCs. In itself, it cannot make any major difference to electoral results. There is also no indication that the other intermediate castes which are part of the OBCs are necessarily backing Alpesh Thakore, though he claims to be the leader of the larger OBC formulation.
My taxi driver in Ahmedabad, a Thakore, put it bluntly that he was both OBC and Kshatriya, depending on the situation!
Besides, there is a caste confusion which makes the situation more complex. The Thakore community sees itself as part of the larger Kshatriya grouping — something which the latter resents. Other members of the OBC also view this tactic as a Thakore ploy to have the best of both worlds. My taxi driver in Ahmedabad, a Thakore, put it bluntly that he was both OBC and Kshatriya, depending on the situation! The Thakores may not be as well off as the Patidars but they are also not so marginalised as to be seen as credible victims of State apathy.
The Thakore community has, generally, voted for the Congress in previous elections, and so Alpesh Thakore’s decision to align with the party this time should not surprise anyone. This is the only explanation which is on offer, but it does not still explain what Alpesh has against the BJP or what the issues are which he plans to raise before the voters in favour of the Congress or against the BJP. Up until now, he has been merely harping on generalities: Voters want a change after two decades of BJP rule; the ruling party has ignored the marginalised; the Congress has traditionally been a well-wisher of the weaker sections of society, etc.
Alpesh Thakore faces another problem, which is personal. He is seen as a rank opportunist, and even his supporters this columnist spoke to in Mehsana, and a few who hailed from Rajkot, admit that the youth leader had been less than transparent in his political stance. Months before he joined the Congress, Alpesh had reportedly confabulated with senior BJP leaders, including Amit Shah. The talks were to work out a deal for providing Assembly tickets to OBC — and especially Thakore community — leaders.
The failure to strike an arrangement with the BJP led Alpesh Thakore to the Congress, which was all too happy to snap him up.
Nothing came out of Alpesh's discussion with the BJP, probably for two reasons. The first is that Alpesh Thakore may have demanded more than what the party could offer to his outfit, the OBC, SC and ST (OSS) Ekta Manch. The second is that the BJP believed its own pro-OBC credentials were strong enough — Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to the OBC — and that it need not have to give in to the demands of a newcomer. The failure to strike an arrangement with the BJP led Alpesh Thakore to the Congress, which was all too happy to snap him up.
People also snigger than Alpesh Thakore is a BJP creation who was programmed to blunt the Hardik Patel factor but has now turned hostile. There may be an element of truth in this. But this raises another question. With the Patidars and the OBCs to which the Thakores belong, working at cross-purposes at the grassroots level for years, how will the convergence of votes between them happen? Alpesh Thakore rose to prominence alongside Hardik Patel when he opposed the Patidar agitation for reservations, but along the way he suddenly got himself added to the camp which housed the Patidar leader. The non-Thakore communities are not amused.
Alpesh Thakore’s credibility (or lack of it, according to his detractors) is what will determine the success of his alignment with the Congress. Indeed, the demonstration of credibility is his strongest challenge. Until months ago, he had claimed to be equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP, and fully committed to the cause of OBC welfare. He wanted a Ram temple in Gujarat and a ban on cow slaughter. He blamed both the Congress and the BJP for a host of social problems, and wanted the prohibition policy to be more stringently implemented in Gujarat.
But that is all in the past, and Alpesh Thakore is now one of the star campaigners of the Congress in the State. It is possible that some of his star attraction may rub off on a few of the other OBCs, besides his own community. Will it be good enough for the Congress, remains to be seen? Meanwhile, the OBC leader can continue with his vague promises on equally vague issues. As the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said, “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers.”
(Disclaimer: The author writes here in a personal capacity)