Caste still a major factor in selection of candidates in Gujarat: Political analysts

PTI, Apr 30, 2024, 1:48 PM IST

Representative image

Ahmedabad: Political parties may claim that the caste arithmetic does not play a role in candidate selection but analysts say it is still a major factor in Gujarat, even though urbanisation has weakened caste identities in some parts of the state.

In rural areas, however, caste is still a dominant factor, they said.

Patidars constitute 11-12 per cent of Gujarat’s 6.5-crore population and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), scattered across many sub-communities including Thakors in north and Kolis in central Gujarat and Saurashtra, constitute around 40 per cent.

The BJP has fielded six Patidars, seven OBCs and three Kolis. The Congress and the AAP, part of the opposition INDIA alliance, have fielded six Patidars, seven OBCs and two Kolis.

Vidyut Joshi, sociologist and former vice-chancellor of Bhavnagar University, told PTI that Gujarat’s first four chief ministers were either Brahmin or Vanik.

Patidars entered the political scene after the 70s when Chimanbhai Patel became the chief minister in 1973, he said.

“Caste is an identity. The caste factor is considered in the selection of candidates. It cannot be discarded. Today, caste and class go hand-in-hand. The candidate should be from a well-to-do background along with being from a specific caste,” Joshi said.

Rural voters prefer candidates from their caste as they feel it becomes easier to approach them for work after the polls, he said.

Political analyst Amit Dholakia said the caste effect is diminishing in central and south Gujarat’s urban pockets like Ahmedabad and Vadodara but it is still a dominant factor in rural areas like Saurashtra and north Gujarat.

“Candidates have won from seats where their caste was not dominant. Urbanisation plays an important role in weakening caste identities and bringing forward other issues. In rural areas, particularly Saurashtra and north Gujarat, caste still plays an important role in politics,” said Dholakia, a political science professor at the Vadodara-based M S University.

Earlier, candidates directly appealed to people of their caste to vote for them. Now, the appeal revolves either around Hindutva or Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s development agenda, he said.

Dholakia further said, “The BJP wants to create a consolidated Hindu vote by blurring caste identities, while the INDIA alliance thinks Hindutva-centric politics can be countered by strengthening caste identities.”

One of the main reasons the Congress was defeated in Gujarat was the weakening of caste identities, at least in urban pockets, he claimed.

“Caste is a factor in the selection of candidates, especially in Saurashtra. Patidars are still a force to reckon with but other castes, especially Kshatriyas, are losing dominance. We cannot discard the caste factor but it is getting weak, mainly because of the rise of Hindutva-centric politics,” he said.

Rajkot-based political analyst Jagdish Mehta said in Saurashtra and Kutch regions, having eight Lok Sabha seats, caste was not a dominant factor before the 1990s.

The parties used to select candidates known for their work or based on their backgrounds, like heirs of erstwhile rulers, he said.

“Prior to the 80s, majority of the winners in the Saurashtra region belonged to different castes and got elected because of their personal image and social connect. After the BJP’s entry, caste suddenly became the most important factor in the selection of candidates,” he claimed.

The BJP talks about politics of development but it takes the caste factor into consideration during candidate selection. It is evident that the BJP selects candidates from dominant castes, Mehta further claimed.

“Though a candidate’s caste should be the last factor, it has become the main factor now,” he added.

Gujarat BJP spokesperson Yamal Vyas, however, doesn’t fully agree.

“We don’t give a lot of importance to caste. We try to maintain a balance. What matters is a candidate’s commitment to the party, ability to win and educational qualification,” said Vyas.

Instead of just relying on the caste factor, the BJP undertakes an elaborate “sense exercise” wherein party observers visit every constituency, meet local leaders and poll aspirants to prepare a list of probable candidates, which is then sent to the party leadership for the final announcement, he said.

State Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi said the onus is also on the voters because if they keep rejecting well-qualified and deserving candidates, parties will shift focus to other selection criteria like caste as ultimately victory matters.

“Parties usually keep social engineering in mind while selecting a candidate. The Congress also takes into consideration educational qualifications, mass connect, ability to understand local issues and popularity (of a candidate),” he said, citing Congress’ Banaskantha candidate Geniben Thakor and Rajkot candidate Paresh Dhanani as examples.

“Ultimately, our selection is based on the choice of voters. We have seen in the past how candidates like T N Seshan lost, some struggled to save deposits, and how non-corrupt and upright former government officers lost polls. This creates pressure on parties to look for winnability, not quality of candidates,” said Doshi.

In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, Congress nominee and former chief election commissioner Seshan, credited with transforming the Election Commission in the 1990s, lost to BJP veteran L K Advani from Gandhinagar Lok Sabha seat.

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