Gujarat Election: Jignesh Mevani the lone ranger among the Three Musketeers of the Congress
In 2017 the three young men had emerged to lead stirs that shook the BJP government in the state. Two of them have been co-opted by the BJP since then while attempts continue to rein in the third
In the run-up to the 2017 elections, the three young leaders, Alpesh Thakore, Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani, had risen against the state in Gujarat, answering sociological, cultural or anti-repression calls. As another assembly election looms closer, it is interesting to chart their individual journeys since then.
The threesome constituted a formidable caste phalanx and an organizational umbrella that shook the foundations of the BJP-led Anandiben Patel government, ultimately leading to its ouster.
Hardik Patel, barely out of his teens then, rose rapidly riding astride the demand for OBC status to the Patidar community which would entitle them to reservation in government jobs and education. This economically dominant community constitutes 14 per cent of the state’s population and has a defining say in 55 of the 182 seats in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha. His quota agitation which engulfed the state turned bloody with 14 fatalities and foresaw the deployment of 3500 paramilitary personnel and 93 companies of the State Reserve Police.
Alpesh Thakore rose to prominence after the Patidar agitation. The founder of the OSS (OBC, SC and ST) Ekta Manch, his foray began helming a movement against social evils like drinking. His importance lay in the fact that OBCs constituted about 40 per cent of the voter population in Gujarat.
The rise of Jignesh Mevani, a journalist turned dalit activist was on the back of protests following the Una flogging incident in July 2016 when seven Dalit youth were tortured on the pretext of cow protection though they were skinning a dead cow. The incident filmed and widely shared on social media led to widespread outrage and militant Dalit protests. Over 30 Dalit organisations came together to protest and Mevani was its convenor.
The three youth with their organisations, loosely banded together to send the political temperature in Gujarat soaring ultimately leading to the replacement of chief minister Anandiben Patel who had succeeded Narendra Modi in 2014 after he took over in Delhi as Prime Minister heading a BJP led government. The crowning irony lay in that the first Patidar woman Patidar chief minister of Gujarat had been felled by an agitation demanding OBC category reservation for patidars !
Riding on the back of protests against the BJP government in Gujarat, the three cast their lot with the Congress. In the elections that followed in 2017, Congress bagged 77 seats and the BJP tally was reduced to 99 in a 182-member house.
As another election looms large over the Gujarat horizon, where are these swashbuckling heroes of the previous poll encounter?
Alpesh Thakore who was the first to join the Congress, just before the last Assembly polls contested from Radhanpur in north Gujarat and won but was also the first to resign from the Congress and join the BJP. He fought the by-election as a BJP candidate and was defeated.
“It is time to throw out the BJP from Gujarat. Lakhs of young are jobless,74,000 farmers are neck deep in debt and illicit liquor flows freely”, he said the day he joined the Congress. The bluster is gone and now he is just one of many in the queue for a BJP ticket, a faint caricature of his old self and fiercely opposed by old-time BJP loyalists.
Hardik Patel rose rapidly in Congress and in just two years was elevated working president of the state unit. At 27 years of age, he was the youngest to occupy this position in the party. A man who rose on the back of a caste agitation quit the Congress in May this year terming the party as “casteist” and joined the BJP in June announcing that he would henceforth be a ‘soldier in Narendrabhai’s army”.
The reasons were not far to seek. All set to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, he was thwarted when the High Court accepted the government plea that he had” criminal antecedents with 17 FIRs and two sedition cases” and refused a stay on a 2015 case of arson and rioting wherein he had been sentenced to two years imprisonment. The Supreme Court stayed this verdict on April 12 this year and his diatribe against his own party began the day after.
A total of 30 FIRs were filed against him between 2015 and 2018 and by his own admission then, many of these cases remain pending. The apex court may have stayed one case but the state government’s stand in the remaining ones remain vital to his political career. It thus makes sense to be on the right side of the rulers and the roar of old is now a mere whimper.
Mevani though an independent in 2017 remains steadfastly with the Congress and is paying the price for it as the ruling BJP unleashes its ‘fire power’ to break him. In July this year he was made a working president of the Gujarat Congress.
Earlier on April 21, Mevani, was picked up in a midnight swoop by the Assam Police from the government circuit house in Palanpur and flown to Assam on the ostensible charge of tweeting against the Prime Minister.
The tweet of April 18, ahead of the Prime Minister’s Gujarat visit said, “Godse ko apna aradhya manne wale pradhanmantri Narendra Modi 20 tarikh se Gujarat daure pe hai, unse appeal hai ki Gujarat mein Himmatnagar, Khambhatt aur Veraval mein jo kaumi hadse hue hain, uske khilaf shanti aur aman ke appeal kare. Mahatma Mandir ke nirmata se itni ummed to banti hai“ (Prime Minister Narendra Modi who worships Godse is on a tour of Gujarat from April 20. I appeal to him to appeal for peace and brotherhood in the communal incident affected Himmatnagar, Khambhat and Veraval towns. This is the least that can be hoped from one who built the Mahatma Mandir). The arrest came from a complaint by Arup Dey, an executive member of the Bodoland Territorial Council at Kokrajhar police station on April 19. The FIR was filed under sections 120(B), 153(B), 295(A), %04, 505(a)(b)(C)2 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) and section 66 of IT Act.
The police sought a 13-day remand, got three and when bailed out, promptly arrested him on charges of assaulting a woman cop and secured another five days remand. The assault, for the record, took place when Mevani was being taken from Guwahati airport to Kokrajhar by road on April 21. In effect, he was bailed out on April 25 for an offence, he allegedly committed on April 18 and was promptly re-arrested for another offence, he committed while in police custody on April 21 for which he was remanded by the court to five days of police custody on April 26!
Mevani has constantly been in the cross-hairs of the BJP government. He worked tirelessly during the Corona pandemic to set up a 13,000-litre oxygen plant in his constituency that can refill 800 jumbo cylinders in a day but before the project could be commissioned, the Gujarat Charity Commissioner froze the account of the charitable trust undertaking it. Mevani subsequently moved the High Court seeking direction to the state government to allow him to use hiss MLA funds to create health facilities in his constituency. The Congress too joined with a similar petition and while the hearing was on the state government announced that all legislators could put their discretionary funds to such use. Mevani is on record stating that he had to cut through the red tape of a hostile government even for such a life-giving facility which saw the light of day thanks only due to his persistent efforts. “
His woes seem unending though. In May, a magisterial court convicted him and 9 others for holding a march in Mehsana without permission in July 2017, to three months imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1000 each. The conviction was challenged before a sessions court which admitted the appeal and granted them bail but with the proviso that they cannot leave Gujarat without court permission and ordered to deposit their passports.
In September, Mevani and 18 others were sentenced to six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs 500 in a case related to a protest led by him in Ahmedabad in 2016. The sentence was stayed to enable him to appeal the same. Mevani says he is determined to fight it out.