VADGAM, Gujarat -- As far as "youthquakes" go, it is no exaggeration to say that Gujarat has witnessed one in the form of Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor -- three young leaders who have given the Bharatiya Janata Party its toughest electoral fight since the Hindu nationalist party came to power in the state in 1995.
Over the past few months, Mevani, a rising Dalit leader, Patel and Thakor, faces of the Patidar community and Other Backward Classes (OBC) respectively, have set aside their ideological differences and come together for the sole purpose of defeating the BJP in the 2017 Gujarat Assembly election.
Earlier this week, Mevani, who is fighting his first election as an independent candidate, told me, "Fascism is fascism. It will ruin our country if we stay silent any longer."
Whether Mevani wins or loses on Monday, the 37-year-old Dalit leader's fiery and irreverent rhetoric targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi has irked the BJP. Last week, party president Amit Shah accused him of taking funds from an "anti-national" group. In one of the many communal remarks made during the course of the campaign, Hindu nationalists used the term 'HAJ' to describe the trio of Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh and 'RAM' to describe Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, Shah and Modi.
When I first spoke with Mevani in August, 2016, the big question was whether he would be a flash in the pan or succeed in fanning the Dalit agitation that had erupted in Gujarat after a chilling episode of caste violence.
On July 11, 2016, four Dalit men were tied to a car and thrashed by cow vigilantes in the town of Una for skinning a dead cow. A viral video of the public flogging triggered widespread protests, with Mevani emerging as the face of the Dalit movement in the state. At the time, Mevani, a law graduate who had worked for some years as a journalist, told me that he would not let the fledgling movement die. "Dalits need to realise that they can be what anyone else can be," he had said.
When I saw him in his constituency of Vadgam, just over one year later, Mevani was holding a rally with Congress Party (now) president Rahul Gandhi. When I met him, a few days later, he was gathering people who would stay vigilant when votes are counted on December 18. Dressed in a green khadi shirt, black trousers and sports shoes, the Dalit leader stood out among the throng of politicians dressed in white kurtas and sandals. He laughed and said, "Well, I guess I have kept my promise to HuffPost. I think it is evident that I'm here and here to stay."
Mevani, however, is walking a tightrope. On the one hand, the Dalit leader is working with the Congress to defeat the BJP. In fact, the Congress has not fielded a candidate in Vadgam, a seat which it has won thrice since 1998, to give Mevani his best shot at winning. On the other hand, Mevani refuses to be co-opted by the Grand Old Party, which he believes would be contrary to the ideological underpinnings of the Dalit movement.
For over an hour, Mevani spoke about walking the tightrope, his dream of taking down the BJP, life lessons, and dressing like a politician.
Fascism is fascism. It will ruin our country if we stay silent any longer.
Are you nervous about the election result?
No, I feel like I've already won. I was under the impression that contesting electoral politics is something that doesn't go with me. But the kind of love and affection that I've got from people in my constituency is stunning, sublime and supreme. It is devastatingly great. The figure that will come out on the 18th can go in my favor or against me, but I've won a lot of hearts. The amount of youth that I could engage with is an investment for the future. It will be a major breakthrough if I win.
If you don't win?
I will continue with the struggle. Our movement is political. Politics is not just about electoral politics. I'm not shying away from that ever.
Why have you made beating the BJP your life's mission?
The BJP originates from the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) which is a fascist force rooted in an ideology that can be traced back to Hitler and Mussolini. They can go to any extent. They can destroy whatever little democracy that we are left with. They can destroy our goal of creating a secular and socialist democracy. If the BJP comes to power in 2019 then this country will be a banana republic. Then, I should not be surprised that you get killed for doing a story and you should not be surprised if I get killed for organizing a rally. That is what fascism is. I want Dalits, who are 18% of the population in India, to mercilessly vote against the BJP in 2019.
I want Dalits, who are 18% of the population in India, to mercilessly vote against the BJP in 2019.
You are working with parties and people from all kinds of political backgrounds, convictions and agendas. How do you reconcile your differences?
When you are fighting against fascism, against the BJP, each pro-poor face has to come together and keep aside their ideological disputes and problems. Fascism is fascism. It will ruin our country if we stay silent any longer. There are contradictions between the Patels and Dalits, Dalits and OBCs, OBCs and Patels. But still Alpesh, Hardik and I are together because our principal contradiction is against the BJP. We all feel that we are the victims of the "Gujarat model." But that does not mean that the contradiction that lies beneath will not surface. It will and we will resolve it.
Has the past year changed you?
It has made me more pragmatic and wise. I've learned to navigate the politics. Gujarat produces great social activists but they remain stuck. They are not able to do anything electorally and there is not much expansion on the ground. In politics, you learn to carve your way out.
Gujarat produces great social activists but they remain stuck. In politics, you learn to carve your way out.
How do you mean?
So, had I not been wise and pragmatic I would not have decided to contest from this seat. I'm contesting from this seat because I want to win and don't want to remain stuck.
You mean your standing from a seat that Congress already had a good chance of winning?
Yes. I would never allow my values to get distorted but I have learnt you have to make compromises to further the agenda, not for personal gain but the agenda of the public. Ideology is not an end in itself.
What's the end?
The end should be concrete changes in the lives of people. Ultimately, in the final analysis, we have to construct a classless society. The idea of creating a classless society keeps putting enormous pressure on me every single day.
Ideology is not an end in itself.
What is your plan after the election is over?
I want to immediately give a call for 160 Dalit youths to commit 15 days of their life to me. I will ask them to go to 160 nagar palikas where sanitation workers are denied even minimum wages. I want the sanitation workers to go for a massive strike. Even if there is one-fourth success, it will ensure minimum wage to at least 15,000 people. I will launch a program for the Valmikis who are the Dalit among Dalits and I want to launch platform for Dalit-Muslim unity. I will be plunging into movements. I'm 90% an agitator.
You sound like Arvind Kejriwal.
No. Arvind is Arvind. I'm, well, me.
Do you think being a politician could derail you from your goal?
Not at all. When you become an MLA, there is an aura that he is an MLA. He is a neta. There is more chance of people joining us. I want to use the bourgeois glamour for the cause of the poor people.
I want to use the bourgeois glamour for the cause of the poor people.
You recently had a rally with Rahul Gandhi. What did you think of him?
We didn't talk much on the day of the rally. I've met him twice and he seems to be a reasonable guy. He wants to engage a lot of youth in his party and he is open for dialogue. That is my primary impression.
Why did you not want to join Congress?
I want my identity to remain intact. It was fabulous for me that a cadre of the Congress was working for me, a cadre from a Dalit party was working for me, a cadre from the Aam Aadmi Party was here, an MLA from the CPI (ML) stayed for days and campaigned for me, Swaraj India's Yogendra Yadav campaigned for me, and CPI's Milind Ranade from Maharashtra was here. Many of these political parties would not have shared a stage if I had not been there.
People believe that you will eventually join Congress.
No, I'm not joining. It's an understanding. It's not even an alliance. It is a win-win situation. If it had not been a win-win situation, Rahul Gandhi being potentially prime minister material, would not get himself clicked with me.
Would you like to be prime minister?
What did you make of the BJP campaign?
It was communal, it was nonsensical, it was irrelevant. Modi did not create the vibes that he was able to create earlier. He has not been able to catch people's imagination. He sounded very boring, continuously repeating himself, with no data to place before the people. He sounded like someone whose time has gone. The struggle is in 2019. It will be a mentally aging Modi against the 50-crore youth of this country, many of them unemployed and desperate for change.
It will be a mentally aging Modi against the 50-crore youth of this country, many of them unemployed and desperate for change.
You can't deny how popular Modi is even among the youth.
He isn't anymore.
He won Uttar Pradesh for the BJP – again – even after demonetization.
Modi is a media creation. There are agencies in the world that can manufacture consent for you. They can project you in a certain manner by pumping in enormous money. And there is no denying the communal bias among the people of this country. The section of youth who are under the clutch of Hindutva like him. His Goebbelsian rhetoric of development suited the neoliberal climate and the aspirations of the urban middle class youth.
How will you counter Amit Shah and Narendra Modi's strategy of eroding caste-based voting and uniting the electorate under the Hindu banner? (BJP won 69 out of 85 reserved seats in the UP-Assembly election).
Babasaheb Ambedkar said that most Hindus are not Hindus - they belong to a caste – but they become Hindus when it comes to killing Muslims. Otherwise we think, interpret and analyze in terms of caste. People even marry in terms of caste. They stay together on the basis of their caste identity. We are a caste-ridden society. But the BJP, many times, has managed to take people out of their caste identity and make them think as a monolithic entity. In the case of UP, in my understanding, Dalits did not become Hindu but somehow, they found the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati) becoming irrelevant. In Gujarat, however, Dalits are not with the BJP.
Since Dalits, more or less, have supported the Congress in Gujarat then what is your role in the state's electoral politics?
Making the anti-BJP Dalit front even stronger through my struggles on the ground and raising the material issues which unfortunately has not been the agenda of the movement of late. Everything I've done in the past two years has got stunning media coverage because I can articulate. I've got a lot of space on television channels where I bash Modi every day, very often below the belt. I'm a rogue on television debates. The Dalit population of the country is seeing one of its youth leaders giving gaali to the BJP all the time. This will help in 2019. The national election is my concern even more than the Gujarat election. Alpesh and Hardik may not be able to do much outside led Gujarat but I can.
The national election is my concern even more than the Gujarat election. Alpesh and Hardik may not be able to do much outside led Gujarat but I can.
Do you think speaking in English is important in politics? Modi has relied on Gujarati and Hindi.
I don't think in English. If I go on an English news channel, I will tell them that I will speak in Hindi. I think mostly in Gujarati. I'm fine with English, but not fluent. But I do think that English is important. Politics is also about perception. You have to send the message across that you are smart. English appeals more to the urban elite middle class.
What is the question from the media that annoys you the most?
Congress ka agent hai. They try to diminish the ideology I stand for by linking me to the Congress.
Will it be tough to bounce back if the BJP wins Gujarat again?
If the BJP wins again - after the Dalit movement, the Patidar movement, the ASHA workers, the anganwaadi ki behne, the farmers' movement, Alpesh - it will be a setback to the poor people of this country. I will be sad. I will be sad because I can visualize what I could have done. I would love to be in the position to give an incredible boost to the Dalit movement.
Do you find yourself projecting yourself differently now that you could be a neta, how you speak and the way you dress?
I'm trying to be nicer when I talk. I'm not always successful. I get about 250 to 300 calls on my mobile, every day. I changed my number and gave my old phone to someone on my team. He has gone mad. There are some really crazy calls. People will call after midnight and simply say, "We are sitting in a chaupal with our friends - Jay Bhim." Imagine.
I haven't changed the way I dress. I still wear rotten clothes. I bought eight to ten kurtas of different colors for the election. I'm really enjoying wearing kurtas.
What is the life lesson that you have learnt in the past year?
This is an endless struggle. You need to be creative and innovative at every step. This country has produced great Marx scholars but people found them to be dull. It is very important to catch the imagination of the people. But there can be no compromise on the actual struggle at the grassroots. You can be nothing if you don't actually work for the people.
You can be nothing if you don't actually work for the people.
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