Independent MLA from Vadgam in Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani has been sentenced to three months in jail in connection with a rally held in Mehsana in 2017. He has been convicted on the charge of unlawful assembly.
Mevani was recently released on bail after being arrested by the Assam police over his alleged remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mevani and the Congress, which supported his candidature from Vadgam in the 2017 Assembly elections, have both alleged that he is being hounded by the BJP and that the ruling party sees him as a political threat.
Two questions arise:
Can the arrest affect Mevani in the elections later this year?
Is Mevani a threat to the BJP?
Impact of Mevani's Arrest
Now, it is possible that Jignesh Mevani's imprisonment could get stayed if he appeals. And even if that doesn't happen, it doesn't disqualify him from contesting elections as under the Representation of the People Act, persons convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for two or more years are disqualified from holding public office from the day of the conviction to six years after their release. It doesn't apply to those who have been convicted of lesser crimes.
If Mevani does have to go to jail for three months, it may put him out of action for some time in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Gujarat due in December this year.
Whether his arrest would turn sentiment in favour of or against him in his constituency and other parts of Gujarat is anyone's guess.
However, it does seem that the ruling BJP is feeling the need to politically neutralise Mevani.
Is Mevani a Threat to the BJP?
Another important event happened almost around the same time as the case against Mevani in Assam.
On 24 April this year, Congress leader Manilal Vaghela joined the BJP. Vaghela was the MLA from Vadgam between 2012 and 2017. He was denied a ticket in the 2017 elections after the party decided to not field a candidate and instead support Mevani.
At that time Vaghela accepted the party's decision and didn't rebel. But he has now left the Congress and, in all likelihood, will contest against Mevani from Vadgam in the Assembly elections.
The timing of Vaghela joining the BJP and the case against Mevani does give credence to the assertion that the BJP sees the Independent MLA as a political threat.
Why is that the case?
There are two aspects to this – first is particular to Gujarat and the second, goes beyond it.
Within Gujarat, Dalits along with Muslims remain the most steadfast voting bloc against the BJP.
In the 2019 Modi wave, the Congress lost massive ground among OBCs and Adivasis compared to its decent performance in the 2017 Assembly polls. However, in contrast, it gained ground among Dalits.
According to the Lokniti-CSDS post poll survey, the Congress' support among Dalits increased from 53 percent in the Assembly polls to 67 percent in the Lok Sabha elections, while the BJP fell from 39 percent to 28 percent.
Then in terms of Assembly segments, in the 2019 general elections, the Congress was ahead of the BJP in only nine out of Gujarat's 182 Assembly seats. Five of these were ST reserved seats and two were seats with a sizable Muslim population. However two other seats are important in this context.
One was Jignesh Mevani's constituency Vadgam. And another segment was Kodinar, an SC reserved constituency in Gir Somnath district. It happens to be adjacent to Una where the infamous flogging incident of 2016 had taken place, sparking protests by Dalits across the state. Mevani played an important role in the protests.
Incidentally, soon after his release from Assam last week, Mevani had called for a Gujarat Bandh on 1 June demanding that the cases against Dalit protesters from the Una agitation be withdrawn.
Now, Gujarat doesn't have a very high Dalit population – at around 7 percent. So it is not as if the BJP can't win without Dalit support.
However, the clear preference of Dalits against the BJP and in support of the Congress is a major obstacle to a broader Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP.
It would be wrong to attribute this entirely to Mevani as Dalit support for the Congress precedes his emergence as a leader and an activist.
But he does remain an important catalyst for anti-BJP politics among Gujarat's Dalits, with his strong advocacy of land rights and fight against atrocities.
Unlike OBC leader Alpesh Thakor who defected to the BJP and Hardik Patel who couldn't ensure a massive shift of Patidars towards the Congress, Mevani does remain firmly committed to ensuring that Dalits in Gujarat rally against the BJP.
Along with Muslim and Sikh activists booked under UAPA, one of the most hounded strands of political activism in the past few years have been those who fall in the intersection of Ambedkarite and Left politics.
The entire Bhima Koregaon case is essentially a crackdown on this strand of Dalit politics.
Mevani is closely influenced by the ideas of Anand Teltumbde, who has consistently stood for solidarity among marginalised groups.
Mevani himself is known to have said in the past that there is a "strong material aspect" to caste beyond the socio-cultural and that the struggle against caste, class and fascism need to go together.
It is due to this belief that Mevani has focussed his activism on issues like land rights and labour rights.
Another aspect is important from the point of view of national politics and that is Mevani's refusal to distance himself from the Congress. Though he hasn't joined the party officially and has campaigned for non-Congress candidates in the past – such as Kanhaiya Kumar (then with CPI) and Atishi from AAP – he has broadly remained supportive of the Congress.
But not joining the party has also enabled Mevani to grow into a larger profile than he would have had as just any other Congress MLA.
A combination of all these factors makes Mevani a political thorn for the BJP, something that the party would no doubt be aware of.