[A shorter version of this article was published in The Wire on 18 December. I thank K. Satyanarayana, P. Sanal Mohan and Jangam Chinnaiah for their very helpful comments on it, which have helped me to clarify and elaborate on certain points.]
The rise of Jignesh Mevani constitutes a significant landmark in the political configuration in which the Congress has risen, despite itself, from a state of utter disarray to become the point of articulation for a possible political realignment in the near future. The process of political reconfiguration had already begun as a very significant section of the powerful patidar community, long understood to be the bedrock of the BJP’s social base in the state, had broken away from it. But alongside this, the rise of the young leaders Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani together produced the new young face of emergent Gujarat.
There is no doubt that the vacuum that characterized the space where the opposition should have been, no longer exists. The masthead of a new opposition formation is evident on the horizon. This turnaround in the fortunes of the Congress would not have been possible without the re-alignments in the non-electoral arena, facilitated in no small measure by the rise of this young leadership.
Jignesh Mevani’s resounding victory from Vadgam constituency in Banaskantha district by over 18,000 votes over his BJP rival Vijai Chakravarti, is an important event in the state’s history. Mevani’s political rise came in the wake of the Una floggings of four Dalit youth supposedly suspected of having killed a cow. That vigilante action of the cow protectors, in July 2016, called forth a massive movement of unprecedented militancy from sections of the state’s Dalit population. And leading that struggle was the 36 year old lawyer, Jignesh Mevani, who famously coined the slogan the ‘you keep the cow’s tail/ give us our land’. The movement took the form of an ‘Azadi Kooch’ or the ‘March for Freedom’, where Dalits in large numbers took an oath that they would not henceforth lift carcasses of dead cows.
The decisive intervention by Mevani in that struggle was characterized by two very distinctive features. First, it raised the question of land that had supposedly been earmarked for Dalits but had never been transferred to them. Mevani’s demand for the transfer of land to Dalits was not just a vacuous slogan – for he had done detailed homework about the precise lands in question and their legal status. His interest in the land question has been quite unique insofar as contemporary Dalit politics is concerned, for it is based on the recognition that while questions of identity and self-respect are important they cannot be ensured while remaining in the prison-house of what has come to be called ‘identity’ politics. His was not a mere middle class oriented Dalit discourse for it recognized without hesitation that questions of class and economic freedom were central for the large masses Dalits throughout the country.
It is important to underline here, in parenthesis – and I have made this argument at length on many other occasions – that what is loosely called ‘identity politics’ is not necessarily opposed to economic and class questions (ref: the tired Western debate on ‘recognition’ versus redistribution). Indeed, lower caste movements, and the Dalit movement in particular, have long had land on their agenda, through the early twentieth century, for instance in Kerala. Lately however, in the politics of the BSP, RPI (one of whose luminaries is part of the present government) and some other strands of the contemporary Dalit movement, the question of social justice and self-respect has been evacuated of all economic content. One exception is the agenda of Dalit capitalism that came out of the 2001 Bhopal Conference, where identity and economic questions were clearly tied together – but that did not really concern the poorest of the poor Dalits who did not have the resources to become entrepreneurs. In that sense, the the politics of the last few decades has seen the excision of economic questions from the agenda of self-respect and freedom, turning it into a purely ‘identity’ issue. That is where the novelty of Mevani’s intervention lay – in bringing together these two concerns into a single agenda.
Second, Mevani’s stamp was evident in the very selection of the name for the movement ‘Azadi Kooch’ – recalling the viral Azadi slogans that had reverberated in and from JNU earlier and which had been cast as ‘anti-national’ by the government, the ruling party and the RSS. Azadi was deftly tied up with the question of Dalit emancipation and immediately established connections with other movements and struggles elsewhere in the country. And the connection was not simply ideational. He established direct connections with young student leaders from JNU, Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid, Umar Khalid and many others like the late Gauri Lankesh, who became part of the new kind of emergent left-wing sensibility in different parts of India.
Jignesh Mevani had had his earlier ‘training’ in politics of a different sort with the charismatic lawyer Mukul Sinha, who had been fighting many of the cases of the victims of the 2002 carnage as well as of ‘fake encounters’ in the state. Sinha was a lawyer but he was also an organizer and ran a left wing organization by the name of New Socialist Movement based in Ahmedabad that works among the city’s poor residents. Mevani is quite forthright in accepting his debt to Sinha insofar as his exposure to a certain left-wing sensibility is concerned.
Later, as Mevani began to get involved in mass politics he also got involved with the Aam Aadmi Party in Gujarat and left it only when the Una movement gathered momentum and the BJP used his AAP connection to attack the movement as ‘politically motivated’. However, repeatedly, it has been evident that Mevani’s fidelity to the Dalit struggles notwithstanding, he was not just another Dalit leader who was unconcerned about the other political questions that India is faced with today.
Repeatedly, through his election campaign, Mevani has made it clear that confronting the ‘fascist threat’ was of paramount importance – without the defeat of the Hindutva forces there would be no liberation for the Dalits. Hence his insistence that it was not only about supporting the Congress against the BJP, in the false equivalence that the big media continuously tried to set up. In his understanding therefore, politics rather than birth is crucial in determining political strategy: a Dalit-cause-supporting non-dalit counts for more than a right-wing, RSS-and Manuvad-supporting Dalit. That was why Jignesh Mevani was able to garner support for his explicitly Dalit agenda from so many different sections and political currents.
In fact, it was this that not only made possible Jignesh’s emergence as a leader, a point of articulation, where a range of different kinds of people could invest their hopes in him. His election campaign too bore the stamp of this distinctiveness. The funds were crowd-sourced and many different kinds of people contributed to his campaign. But actual monetary funding is only a small part of the huge mobilization that took place as volunteers from all parts of India landed up in Vadgam to help in the campaign and local supporters provided their hospitality in putting up and feeding the volunteers.
Whatever the pitfalls of entering the privileged portals of the Assembly against which Jignesh will no doubt have to guard, there is little doubt that this is a moment full of possibility for the articulation of a Dalit-Bahujan oriented left-wing politics – not just in Gujarat but elsewhere in the country. And Jignesh, who stands at the intersection of many different currents, is the messenger of that new politics.