A community called Koli

Apart from the upper caste Patidars, another major group that has challenged the supremacy of the Modi government is the OBC Koli community, estimated to constitute over 22 per cent the state's population. The ruling party may find the going tough in elections later this year if significant sections of the Patidars and Kolis drift away from it.

The Kolis are evenly spread across all regions of the state. Socially, they are divided into several sub-sections like Chumadia Koli, Tadapada Koli, Patanvadia Koli, Baria Koli, Thakor Koli and Koli Patel. Occupationally, there are two sections: sea-based Kolis (those settled in the long coastal belt and engaged in fishing activities) and land-based Kolis (small and marginal farmers and landless labourers).

According to the state OBC commission, there are 136 castes identified as OBC and the Kolis constitute around 40 per cent of the total OBC population. In Saurashtra, which sends 58 out of 182 members in the assembly, Patidars and Kolis together dominate 45 seats.

Politically, the Kolis were traditional voters of the Congress till 1998 (see table). In fact, this group was an important constituent of KHAM, a social alliance the Congress engineered in the state from the mid-70s to mid-80s.

For the Kolis, KHAM brought upward social mobility and they acquired the status of Kshatriya (deemed to be OBCs in Gujarat). For the Congress, it was a powerful strategy to counter the domination of the upper castes. Madhavsinh Solanki, who implemented KHAM, belongs to the OBC Kshatriyas.

However, with the rise of Hindutva forces in the state, the BJP began actively wooing the Kolis in the mid-80s. Two important leaders, Shankersinh Vaghela, an upper caste Rajput but who has always allied with the OBC castes, and Somabhai Patel, presently a dissident MP from Surendranagar, played a vital role in weaning Kolis and other OBC communities from the Congress. Somabhai was the first Koli MLA to be voted on a BJP ticket in the 1985 assembly polls.

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