Gujarati Poll Politics In A Bihari Booze Bottle
Ironies abound. Gujarat the grand-dad of liquor prohibition in India is seeking stringent laws to curb drinking as done by baby Bihar, the latest anti-booze crusader state.
The issue has become a magnet uniting anti-BJP groups to take on the Gujarat government which has been lurching from one stir to another in a state slated to go to polls next year.
The emerging caste configuration came to the fore early this month when a joint rally of OBCs and dalits with support from the patels was held in the state capital and demanded the implementation of a stringent Bihar like anti-liquor prohibition policy in Gujarat.
The rally saw the emergence of a new political axis in the state with the dalits and OBCs sharing a platform and Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti(PAAS) of Hardik Patel voicing it’s support to the congregation. The muslims have already announced their support to the dalits.
Such a show of force in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state seeking emulation of the example set by his bête noir, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar should normally raise the heckles of the BJP government headed by Amit Shah loyalist, Vijay Rupani.
However, realising the damage potential of the emerging formidable grouping, the Gujarat government swallowed it’s pride and senior cabinet minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama reacted within hours promising to seek legal opinion and tabling a new bill in the ensuing state assembly session. This was a far cry from the normal chest thumping witnessed in the guise of glorifying the Gujarat model, more so in a state which has been ‘dry’ since it’s inception.
Heading these caste configurations is a new youth leadership which refuses to be cowed down by the established political parties or awed by their leaders. This comprises of Alkesh Thakore, the young leader who is spearheading the OBC-dalit campaign under the aegis of the Ekta Manch ,and is joined by Jignesh Mewani who is coordinating the dalit offensive in Gujarat. The two received a message from Hardik Patel, the patidar agitation leader voicing his total support to Thakore’s stir. This bodes problems for the ruling BJP in Gujarat with elections to the state Assembly slated in 2017.
For over sixteen months now numerous social and caste groups have been agitating stridently against the BJP led government. The state’s lax prohibition policy is fast metamorphosing into a socio-political issue which is uniting the anti-BJP forces. While the Patels are demanding reservation in jobs and education under the OBC quota, the SC-ST and OBCs are on the warpath against any change in it. The dalits have already taken up cudgels against the ruling establishment after vigilantes lynched four of them for skinning a dead cow.
Though profiled as a bone-dry state, Gujarat oozes liquor from every pore of it’s ample frame. Converging anti-BJP forces see in this a very convenient issue for mobilizing public opinion against a prevailing social evil. Alpesh Thakore ,the convenor of the Kshatriya-Thakore Samaj and OBC-ST Ekta Manch has been organizing a series of public meetings across the state pointing to it’s ruinous affect among his community youth and administering an oath to his followers to shun liquor. He has been demanding a Bihar like strict anti-liquor law. His organization had planned to stop trains on October 2 but was persuaded against it in view of the tense security scenario. However they intend to intensify their agitation from January next year planning to take out awareness marches through 112 of the total 182 Vidhan Sabha constituencies. Clearly politics is also playing on their minds.
Though the Congress opposition is yet to get it’s act together and the Aam Admi Party(AAP) still desperately trying to stitch up some semblance of a poll portfolio, it is this social-caste grouping which is giving the ruling BJP in Gujarat anxious moments. According to sources, the Rupani government has decided to reach out to Hardik after getting him banished from the state and realizing it has only added to his appeal.
The history of communal conflict in Gujarat is replete with instances of dalits backed by majoritarian caste groups being at the cutting edge of strife with the minority community. However this traditional alignment has undergone a drastic change in the last sixteen months, more so after the lynchings in Somnath district which led to a statewide dalit outcry and forced a change of guard with chief minister Anandiben Patel being replaced by Vijay Rupani, an Amit Shah protege .The muslims who were themselves at the receiving end of the cow protection vigilantes immediately rallied to the support of the dalits with the OBCs joining the axis and the patidar pro-quota agitation leadership also announcing their support, the clock seems to have come full circle against the ruling BJP in the state which derives it’s strength from propogation of majoritarian politics.
With the bulk of the caste and community groupings, making it into an issue, prohibition has now become a millstone around the neck of the BJP government. It is in a fix tackling this growing bonhomie of young caste grouping leaders who are turning traditional politics on it’s head. Efforts at dividing them have so far failed to work. So after the stick, now the carrot. With the prime minister and the national BJP chief Amit Shah both from Gujarat, any setback in the state during the next Assembly elections can play havoc with BJP chances to return to power at the centre in 2019. Highly placed sources say that an internal assessment is being carried out to consider whether Gujarat should go to the polls alongside UP and Punjab instead as scheduled later in the year.
Liquor prohibition is a multi-crore, wholly illicit money making industry which ‘greases’ the entire policing and political machinery. Trying to bridle it has already cost one chief minister with not an iota of dent in the business. If the government fails to tighten the nuts on the prohibition bull, it will face an intensified agitation from major caste groupings with electoral advantages in mind. And if it does, the cops and the byzantine booze industry with deep moorings possess the potential to inflict collateral political damage in an election year as well.
For the moment the ruling BJP in Gujarat seems trapped between the devil and the deep sea with little relief in sight.