The Takeover of Gujarat

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How the BJP turned a Congress-stronghold state into its own fiefdom

The Congress’ strategy in Gujarat is centred on four castes. All of them low or backward—Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim. The four initials give us the word KHAM, coined by the only intellectual in the Gujarat Congress, Madhavsinh Solanki.

At a time not easily remembered now, power was shared by these four communities, ranged against their political rivals and social tormentors—Patels and upper castes.

Harijans, the quaint Gandhian name for Dalits, are 7 per cent of the population. Adivasis, the name by which tribals are known, are twice that. Muslims are 10 per cent. Kshatriyas are an umbrella group of warriors rather than a monolithic caste, but the strategy picked up enough of them to give the Congress a winning share of the vote.

The Congress got 40 per cent in 1975, 51 per cent in 1980, 55 per cent in 1985. Solanki, a Kshatriya, was Chief Minister four times. After him came an Adivasi—Amarsinh Chaudhry.

KHAM was working, crushing its numerically inferior, socially superior opponents.

In 1990, the Congress vote suddenly collapsed to 30 per cent, its lowest ever. The BJP won twice as many seats as the Congress for the first time that year. By 1995, the pattern we are now familiar with had set in—the BJP always pulling in over 40 per cent of the vote and winning two-thirds majorities, and the Congress, stuck in the 30s, with only a handful of seats.

What happened in 1990 to turn what was a Congress state into a solid BJP one?


This is the background. Since 1962, when Gujarat had its first election, there was always an opponent to the Congress other than the RSS formations.

In the 1960s there was the Swatantra Party of Rajagopalachari, in the 1970s the Janata Party of Jayaprakash Narayan, in the 1980s the Janata Dal of VP Singh.

Through these decades, as these parties formed and dissolved, the BJP slowly built itself. The Jana Sangh got only 1 per cent of the vote in 1962 and 2 per cent in 1967. In 1972 and 1976, it got 9 per cent. In 1980, the BJP got 14 per cent, then 15 per cent in 1985. The primary opponent of the Congress till this time was not the BJP but the third front. Each time the third front dissolved, the BJP picked up some voters, and retained them.

But it is only after Ayodhya that the BJP took KHAM apart and took over Gujarat.

It has come to dominate for social—not political—reasons. Hindutva is relatively inclusive. This has made the BJP invincible, giving it a vote share now approaching 50 per cent.

It rallied the upper caste political enemies of Congress around Ram. And, more important, it built a Hindu alliance of upper and lower castes, with people from KHAM.

First, Harijans became a BJP vote bank.

Of the 13 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes, the BJP won 10 in 1995. In the last election, 2007, it won 11.

Adivasis are split between the BJP and Congress. Of the 26 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes, the BJP won 14 in 1995 and 11 in 2007.

Kshatriyas are also divided and as many, perhaps more, martial names will be found on the list of BJP MLAs than in the Congress list.

Muslims alone remain with the Congress in full, and we will see later how they have been rewarded for their loyalty.

With Ayodhya, the BJP defeated the Congress’ caste-centric strategy with a religion-centric approach. Why did this happen only in Gujarat?

The answer to this is to be found in Gujarat’s primary peasant caste, Patel, which forms the BJP’s base. Four of Narendra Modi’s nine Cabinet ministers were Patels.

Peasants are drawn from the fourth rung of Smritic castes—the Shudra. The Patel, however, is considered upper caste—what Gujaratis call savarna—in this state. This is unusual, and unlike Yadavs in UP and Bihar, Patils in Maharashtra, Gowdas in Karnataka and so on, Patels are not OBC.

Secondly, the influence of Jains makes the Patel vegetarian (unlike the other peasant castes named above). Thirdly, the influence of Baniyas makes him mercantile. The Patel does not do honour killing as the Jat does, because honour has no premium in a money-minded society, which values compromise and pragmatism.

In such a society, honour-led Kshatriyas, the second ranked caste in Smritic terms, are considered backward in caste and are OBCs.

On the unpleasant side, because the majority is or thinks of itself as upper caste, Gujarat responds in the reverse way to things like reservations.

In Gujarat, we have anti-reservation, not pro-reservation, stirs. Sometimes even riots. In 1985, Dalits got hammered in the state (though it was OBCs agitating for reservations outside Gujarat).

The social and cultural consensus tilts in favour of an upper caste orientation. This creates space for the RSS to pull in Harijans and Adivasis into the fold of Hindus worshipping Ram and Krishna.

To give one example, the Ekal Vidyalaya associated with the Sangh Parivar is focused on bringing tribal children into mainstream Puranic Hinduism. In Vyara alone, the constituency of Adivasi former CM Amarsinh Chaudhry, Ekal runs 270 schools.  

These are single-teacher (hence ‘Ekal’) schools manned by highly motivated volunteers who work in the field, the perfect environment for RSS cadre.

Ekal’s board is dominated by conservative Baniya businessmen ( board). Its students are taught to do ‘Bharat Mata ki Aarti’. The qualities stressed by this teaching are vegetarianism, religiosity and nationalism—the strong suit of the BJP. The party has become attractive, what we call aspirational, in Gujarat.

Sociologists like Achyut Yagnik have noted with alarm that in 2002, for the first time, tribals participated in riots. They were looting and burning Muslim property in their areas, and making common cause with their upper caste fellows.

Essentially, for 20 years, Gujaratis have voted against a 10 per cent minority. Shameful, but true in my opinion.

And how has the Congress treated this 10 per cent minority?

In 2007, in an assembly of 182 where they should have been represented by 18, there were five Muslim MLAs, including three from the Muslim ghettos of Ahmedabad. The Congress had 59 seats in all.

In 1985, the Congress won 55 per cent of the vote and 149 seats. How many Muslims in the Gujarat Assembly then? Only six.

Clearly, the Congress only puts up Muslims where it has to. The loyalty of Muslims, the only members of KHAM to stay with the Congress, has not been reciprocated. They are now denied justice, but they have always been denied representation in Gujarat.

They have no friends—not in government nor the opposition nor in society.

The Ayodhya movement was against the usurping mosque, not in favour of the temple. That is why, after the BJP’s warriors pulled it down, the movement ended. It is no longer an issue in any other BJP state. But it is alive in Gujarat. Those burnt at Godhra were ordinary Gujarati women and men returning from kar seva. The RSS spotted its opportunity early. With immense patience and hard work, it has built its project to take over Gujarat.

By the time it installed Modi in 2001, the project was already complete.

(This is the third of a series on the upcoming Gujarat elections by Aakar Patel)