Call it the movement of the young, the brave and the aspirational. Like every movement, it has a face. But this one has three – Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor, each one of them 40 or below, each a counterfoil to Indian politicians, who fade away rather than retire. Each represent a separate meaning, but together convey a sense of daring and hope.
It is they who symbolise a worry for the Bharatiya Janata Party even in its triumph in Gujarat. They represent a sliver of hope for the Congress – after all, it is, for a change, on the right side of demography. Indeed, the triumvirate of Hardik, Mevani and Thakor created a narrative that the Congress adopted as its own to mount a challenge to the BJP. Had these three young men not descended on Gujarat, the BJP just might have repeated its 2012 Assembly electoral performance.
Two of these three men contested the elections – Jignesh and Mevani won. Hardik, a callow 24, did not enter the fray. He is still months away from attaining the minimum age required to contest in elections, whether Assembly or Parliament. Yet, it is he who sounded the bugle of rebellion against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, openly challenging him and his achievements, when few dared to speak out.
But the significance of Hardik, Jignesh, and Alpesh isn’t confined to Gujarat. Their impact is all-India. They represent a craving among the young to build an India of their dreams. It is evident from the protests in several universities, the many elections the BJP’s student wing – the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad – has lost.
The ABVP couldn’t edge out the Left from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. It lost the top two posts of president and vice-president in Delhi University. It drew a blank in Hyderabad Central University, which had been agog over the suicide of Rohith Vemula for nearly a year. In Rajasthan University as well as the Punjab University, the ABVP could only win the position of joint secretary.
There has been a claim that the ABVP loses in those universities which are traditionally Left, often dubbed "anti-national" for their radical rhetoric. But this descriptor doesn’t apply to universities in Rajasthan and Punjab as it doesn’t to Varanasi’s Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, where too the ABVP lost. The ABVP was vanquished in Central University, Gujarat and the Allahabad University. It encountered losses even in Assam's Gauhati University, a state where erstwhile student leaders have turned to the BJP even as they age.
The rise of Gujarat’s triumvirate and losses in university elections should worry Modi and the BJP. After all, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Modi’s most avid supporters were the young. His bid for the prime minister's job began with a rousing speech at Delhi’s Sri Ram College of Commerce. Modi seems to have lost out on the support of at least the young and the idealist.
It is a worry for Modi because on 12 March, after spearheading the BJP to an astonishing victory in Uttar Pradesh, he said he saw signs that he could achieve his dream of building a "New India" by 2022. Modi mentioned two of the signs: “A New India of the dreams of its yuva shakti (youth power) is taking place… A new India that fulfils aspirations of its nari shakti (women’s power) is taking place.”
But the signs we see around us seem to indicate an opposite trend: The youth in India are becoming increasingly conflicted about Modi’s "New India". For instance, Jawaharlal Nehru University has been in ferment over the idea of nationalism, whether it should be Hindu and jingoistic in nature or represent religious pluralism. Or take the protests witnessed earlier this year in Banaras Hindu University, where women students clamoured for the removal of gender discriminatory restrictions imposed on them. The BJP was found on the side opposed to students in the two universities.
Nationalism and gender apart, caste is the third factor agitating the young, who seem increasingly frustrated with the India that is evolving. We can read this in an analysis of the personality and rhetoric of Hardik, Jignesh and Alpesh.
Hardik grabbed the national headlines when he led the movement of the Patel community for inclusion in the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) list. Though not upper caste in jati status, the Patels were excluded from the OBC category because they were not deemed socially and educationally backward. Indeed, they are not. But agrarian distress and the poor rate of job creation have incited the Patels to demand reservation, which has enabled those from social groups lower to them to become government officers.
We may disagree with Hardik’s conceptual understanding of affirmative action, yet the Patel movement symbolises the growing anxiety among the young about their future. He has articulated the growing gap between aspirations and their eventual realisation. From this perspective, Hardik represents the frustration of the youth.
It is popularly assumed that the state cares for the weak and mollifies the disgruntled. Yet when the Patels organised a rally to demand reservation, they were fired upon and beaten black and blue. Worse, Hardik had sedition charges slapped on him. Ultimately, the state’s highhandedness turned Hardik against the BJP, articulated often in the rallies he had addressed during the election campaign. He urged the voters to teach the BJP a lesson for becoming arrogant and callously treating those who were the party’s mainstay for long. Hardik, thus, came to represent aspirations and frustrations of the young and their rebellious streak.
Jignesh is arguably the most cerebral of the three. He was pitchforked into the limelight after four Dalits had been flogged for skinning a dead cow in Una. Then a member of the Aam Aadmi Party, he resigned after seeking the party’s permission to lead a long march from Ahmedabad to Una last year. It was a protest against the atrocities committed on Dalits. But he widened the ambit of the movement by demanding land for his community so that it could overcome its marginalisation.
Jignesh symbolises the Dalit consciousness that seeks social equality, self-respect and economic rights. He didn’t join the Congress, but received its support. His political choice represents the belief among a large section of educated Dalits that Hindutva’s principal aim is to co-opt Dalits and deny them political agency. From this perspective, Jignesh is the political voice to the feelings of hurt that were witnessed in Hyderabad Central University.
Of the three, the meaning Alpesh signifies is the trickiest to comprehend. His rise was predicated on his opposition to the Patidar demand for reservation. Thakor thought that an OBC status for Patels would imply that this relatively better-off caste would gobble up a large chunk of reserved jobs. He was ready to counter the Patels’ brinkmanship with his own Kshatriya-Thakor Sena, initially established to launch an anti-liquor campaign.
Alpesh represents the suspicion among the OBCs that there is a surreptitious attempt to dilute reservation for them. He is a warning that the OBCs wouldn’t tolerate the tinkering with the quota system to their detriment.
The three young leaders came together despite their interests being different. For instance, both the Patels and OBCs are among the biggest oppressors of Dalits. The interests of Patels and OBCs are at variance, as of now, on the issue of reservation. What binds them together is their opposition to the BJP’s increasing arrogance and their own aspirations and frustrations.
It is hard to tell whether they will remain together now that the BJP will form the government in Gujarat. But if they do, they represent a possibility of papering over the chasm between castes. Perhaps the past experience of the Congress at ironing out differences among groups under its umbrella led to them coming together on one platform.
The three leaders also signify the importance that caste has for the young. Hindutva hasn’t been able to subsume caste. Whether the three leaders can recalibrate caste dynamics, turn its functioning more democratic and mutually accommodating is the hope Hardik, Jignesh and Alpesh hold out. Three cheers to that!
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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2017 17:56:43 IST