The jury is out on whether the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has inadvertently made a hero out of Gujarat’s firebrand Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani by locking him up in police custody in faraway Assam after slapping two criminal cases against him.
On the one hand, he appears to be the victim of a “witch hunt” launched just before the state assembly elections at the end of the year. On the other hand, given the way our justice system works, Mevani may get so tangled in legal knots over the next few months that he will be crippled as a high-voltage campaigner and mobiliser of anti-BJP votes on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf.
Mevani May Emerge Even More Popular
Gujarat BJP leaders privately admit that they had no clue that the Assam police would swoop down on Mevani and whisk him off at night to Kokrajhar, where a resident – clearly a BJP sympathiser – filed an FIR against him for a tweet critical of PM Modi.
The buzz is that the orders to arrest Mevani were issued from Delhi and he was deliberately taken to a state on the other side of the country as far away from Gujarat as possible.
Even if he finally gets bail and no fresh charges are filed against him, lawyers say he will have to travel to Assam at least once a month, if not more, for hearings in the two ongoing cases against him.
All this may prove disruptive and could hit his campaign. Yet, there is disquiet in the Gujarat BJP that Mevani may have got a fresh lease of life because of the cases and may emerge even more popular than he already is, especially with Dalits, tribals, and a section of dissatisfied urban youth.
Modi-Shah's Scorched Earth Election Policy
The worry in the BJP is understandable. Mevani was one of the three pillars of the Congress party’s election campaign five years ago, the other two being Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel, who had led a successful Patidar agitation against the state government. The Congress gave the BJP the fright of its life by almost winning that election. The BJP scraped through with just 99 of the 182 seats.
The Modi-Shah duo believe in a scorched earth policy for every election. No challenge is too small, no opponent too innocuous to eliminate. Since that shock in 2017, the two have worked assiduously to weaken and marginalise Congress. It weaned away Thakor and 11 more Congress MLAs, reducing the party’s strength in the assembly from 77 to 65.
Using the carrot and stick approach, the BJP has shaken Hardik Patel. The youthful Patidar leader has been blowing hot and cold about the Congress and recently praised the BJP, sparking off speculation that he, too, could be preparing to cross over to the other side.
Mevani Was the Final 'Hurdle' for BJP in Gujarat
With two of the Congress party’s star campaigners from 2017 marginalised, there was only Mevani left to tackle. The Dalit leader is not an ideological fit for the BJP. He is a Leftist, virulently anti-RSS and anti-BJP, and fiery in his demands for justice and equity for Dalits and tribals.
In fact, Mevani was apparently planning to travel through Gujarat to mobilise Dalits and tribals and make them take an oath to vote against the BJP. His oratorical skills and his mass connect make him an effective campaigner, and it was clear that his sympathies lay with the Congress.
Although he has not formally joined the Congress (he remains an Independent MLA elected from Vadnagar in Banaskantha), he has been working closely with the party. Interestingly, the Congress is bearing his current legal expenses on orders from Rahul Gandhi, who is obviously trying hard to hold on to his last asset from the 2017 campaign.
Modi and Shah are leaving no stone unturned to better their best score of 121 seats in 2002 this time. While working systematically to erode the Congress, the party has simultaneously gone after Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which surprised the BJP last year by winning 17 corporator seats in the Surat municipal elections.
Since then, 14 of AAP’s 17 corporators have joined the BJP. Apparently, the remaining three are ready to cross the floor, too, but the BJP has kept its doors closed for the moment, confident that it has managed to hobble Kejriwal’s party.
Will Public Sympathy Help Congress?
The Congress hopes that the victim card will work for Mevani, giving him and the party a badly needed boost. Not only is Modi looking stronger and more formidable after the sweeping victories in the recent assembly polls, especially in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress seems to be in steep decline as it battles issues of leadership, worker morale and ideological confusion.
Whether or not Mevani helps pull the Congress up to give it a fighting chance in Gujarat, his supporters hope that he will gain personally from the manner in which state power has been unleashed against him.
Time will tell whether the BJP overplayed its hand against Mevani or it has succeeded in defanging him, as it did with the other two youth leaders who almost tripped up the party five years ago.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)