Delhi: Six years after the question of whether the face of the Dalit agitation in Gujarat, Jignesh Mevani, was a flash in the pan, the 42-year-old resident of Ahmedabad won his second term as member of the legislative assembly (MLA) from the Vadgam constituency in the northern part of the state.
A year and a half after cow vigilantes publicly flogged four Dalit tanners in the town of Una in July 2016, Mevani, a law graduate who was once a journalist, contested as an independent candidate from the reserved constituency, winning against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in December 2017.
The Congress Party, which helped Mevani by not fielding a candidate in the constituency it had won thrice since 1998, ran an effective campaign following the suffering unleashed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation policy, winning 77 seats; its best results in three decades.
Five years after falling short of the 100 mark in the 182 seat-assembly, the BJP in December 2022 stormed back with a record 156 seats, with the Congress winning 17 seats and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) five. Mevani, who joined the Congress Party in September 2021, won by just over 4,000 votes.
Despite being one of 179 Congress candidates and its working president in the state, Mevani’s victory was celebrated by many of his supporters as something of a David versus Goliath moment.
As an independent lawmaker without adequate financial support or the backing of a political party for much of his first term, Mevani was a vocal critic of Modi and the BJP, campaigning against them and for the human rights of the marginalised and minorities, at a time when the ruling party uses investigating agencies against critics, and many political leaders ride majoritarian sentiment against Muslims.
Mevani was critical of the BJP government for releasing the 11 men who gang-raped Bilkis Bano and murdered 14 members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter, during the Gujarat riots in 2002, raising the issue during his election campaign. He said, “If your daughter asks you in future whether you voted for the party that released them, what will you tell her?”
After the Bhima-Koregaon violence in January 2018, a few weeks after his first electoral victory, the then BJP government in Maharashtra registered a criminal case against him. In April 2022, the BJP government in Assam arrested him for ‘tweets on PM Modi’ and then re-arrested him for allegedly misbehaving with a policewoman immediately after being granted bail.
In May, a Gujarat court sentenced him to three months in jail for taking out a rally without permission in 2017 to mark one year of the Una flogging. In September, he was sentenced to six months for a 2016 case of a road blockade during a protest.
In this end-of-the-year interview, Mevani, who crowdfunded part of his campaign, spoke of the financial challenges of going up against a “giant corporate entity” like the BJP, which received Rs 614.53 crore as contributions, more than six times more than the Congress during 2021-22.
While listing his achievements, including setting up the largest oxygen plant in the state in his constituency and recording the highest enrollment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in the Banaskantha district, Mevani said his victory showed elections could be won without using majoritarianism and casteism as issues. He spoke of his belief in the power of positivity and his ambitions.
“I want to travel and work hard,” he said. “I want to fight and deliver. I want to make Gujarat and India a better place (sic). Life is beautiful.”
What are the things you attribute your victory to?
I attribute it to the love and affection I have earned from the people in my constituency, particularly from the Dalit and poor background. They really like me and have a lot of faith in me. They know this is a man of impeccable integrity who is modest, grounded and solidly behind them. Whenever we want to reach him, he is a call away. From the third or fourth day of the campaign, it became clear that we were winning. In any village we went to, I received a huge welcome. People were putting their hands on my head, cheeks and hands. They were giving blessings. There was a lot of love all around.
What were some of the challenges?
Money was the biggest challenge. As a politician, I haven't yet learnt the tricks of the trade and haven't made any money. I find it difficult to run my office and pay my staff's salary. This was the situation from day one and remains after winning a second time. BJP has now become a giant corporate entity. It is not just a political party. They have unparalleled, unmatchable, enormous amounts of money. Fighting this kind of force with little or no money is extremely difficult. Mr Modi was taking a personal interest. Police, crime branch, and IB were working for the BJP. They became the karyakartas (workers) of the BJP. There were a lot of pressure tactics on the community influencers, particularly the Muslim and Chaudhary communities. It was also challenging because my mindset is still of an activist, not a politician. I still struggle to strike a balance. In the 2017 election, I floated on a wave. This time, I was truly contesting elections, so I was still trying to pick up and understand the grammar and dynamics of electoral politics. But the way people supported me, I'm thrilled, content, and satisfied.
How did you finance your campaign?
Crowdfunding. I knew I would need money, so I requested the people. I knew that people liked my politics, so I took the decision. The party also helped me a lot financially and otherwise. But fighting against the BJP requires much more than the party can provide. As I said, the BJP is a huge corporate entity. It is a challenge, and it will remain a challenge.
Was crowdfunding a difficult decision?
Not at all. It wasn't a difficult decision at all. I'm into politics, and I will need support from the people and the party. It is not enough. And no amount is enough to take on the BJP at the moment. For crowdfunding, you need to have the confidence of the people. People need to have faith in you, and people have faith in you only when you are consistent with your ideology. You are committed to the cause. Without that, no crowdfunding can be successful.
Even if one were not up against the BJP, is it possible to run a campaign only on crowdfunding?
In some constituencies, it is possible, but mostly it is not. Every constituency is different. The money spent in a constituency in Telangana is more than the money spent in Gujarat. In Bihar, CPI(ML) candidates win with very little money. Comparing that to Telangana, the difference is between the earth and the sky.
You have a large party behind you, yet your victory seemed like a David versus Goliath battle. Why do you think that is?
Everyone knows about the Assam episode. The CM of Assam has no business taking panga with someone who is an MLA from Gujarat. I have been vocal against Mr Modi for the past seven or eight years. I have said nasty things about him in more than 20 states. The BJP-RSS cadres were unleashed in my constituency. They were saying horrible things about me during the campaign: he is anti-national, Hindu virodhi, and he will get atrocities done in every village. They said all kinds of nonsense. They pumped in a lot of money. The candidate I was contesting against was giving money to independent candidates. There was the Aam Aadmi Party. There was the AIMIM.
Did you feel that you were going to win?
After two or three days of campaigning, it became clear that we were winning. My teammates started working well in advance. We had booth karyakartas working well in advance. We had a clear idea of where we were, plus and minus. I spent a lot of time in the constituency. Things did get a little hodgepodge a year and a half back, but then we started sorting it out. My constituents know that Jignesh has been vocal on the issues of Gujarat and national importance. He is someone who cannot be bought over.
What was the strategy?
The strategy was a simple one. To meet the maximum number of people. To raise the voice of the voiceless people in the Assembly. To do a good amount of work in my constituency. To bring the community differences on board, tell them what my ideology stands for, and talk about my work in my constituency. My constituency was number one in north Gujarat for generating NREGA employment. I set up Gujarat's biggest oxygen plant. I've been a vocal MLA in the Gujarat Assembly. My constituency is a reserved constituency, so apart from taking care of the constituents, I have to be concerned for the Dalit rights, which I have done. Even after the Assam episode, I did not bow down. There is a huge water crisis in my constituency and north Gujarat, so we got one project worth Rs 192 crores cleared in the budget last year. The water crisis will be resolved in the coming days.
There is always this complaint against MPs and MLAs in our country that ‘jeetne ke baad moonh nahin dikhate’ (they don't show their faces once they have won). I spent a lot of time in my constituency. During the first phase of Covid, I was for more than 60 days at a stretch in my constituency except for four days. During the second phase of Covid, I was there for 34 days. I was also going across India to be a face of the Dalit youth movement. My strategy was to strike a balance between programs happening all across India and Gujarat and my constituency.
How will the second term be different from the first one?
I will keep doing what I've done, but I have a better idea about what is to be done in my constituency and what I should not do. How should I shape my politics, and how should I go about it? What kind of events should I say yes or no to? I have a fair idea. I'm better placed, relaxed, cool and composed. I've grown and matured. And this will help me.
What mistakes or lessons from the first term?
My biggest mistake was that I could not keep in touch with some of the key players in the constituency. I went directly to the people but doing developmental work was not enough. You have to attend weddings. You have to be in touch with the key players of your constituency. You do keep in touch with the community influencers. I went to the village after village, but the message about my efforts was not going out strongly. Now I know better about the right people to be in touch with.
After a point, around 2019, I got tired of media interactions because from the day that the Una incident happened, I had so many interviews, bytes, and quotes. I left that space. That was also a mistake. I should have been consistent with my interactions with the media. I should have used that space better. I still need to work on the kind of organisation I should have been able to create. These are some of the things I could not do that I would love to work on now.
How did you contend with majoritarian pressure not to speak of Muslims?
I'm not the person who will bow down to such nonsense. Of the 144 villages in my constituency, I must have covered more than 130, and in 90% villages I have covered during my campaign, I have been extremely vocal about Bilkis Bano. I will raise those concerns and issues. If I stop doing that, it is not me. I can't do politics at the cost of not bringing me.
Do you identify as a Dalit leader?
I’m a youth leader. The caste I belong to is a biological accident. Ambedkar was a historian, economist, social scientist, political commentator, lawyer, and founding member of the Indian Constitution. A brilliant guy, a brilliant scholar. Still, he is only a Dalit messiah for this country. Transcending the Dalit identity will always be difficult for me.
Why do you want to transcend it?
Why should I be known by my caste? I'm a modern-day liberal homo sapien. That is my identity. And I want to be in tune and harmony with nature and the universe.
Is there anything else you wish to speak about?
I'm super charming and electrifying. Full of energy, love and affection. I love the Instagram reels of Priyanka Chopra and Jahanvi Kapoor. I want to swacch (clean) the villages of Gujarat and India. I want to have the best of Indian culture and food. I want to travel and work hard. I want to fight and deliver. I want to make Gujarat and India a better place (sic). Life is beautiful.
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(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14).