At first sight, the current mobilisation of Patidars in Gujarat for their inclusion in the OBC list is paradoxical.
This group, which forms 14 per cent of the state population, is over-represented in the elite groups that dominate the economy and polity of Gujarat. Historically, as the career of Sardar Patel shows, it was the first rural community to transition to the city. After Independence, those among them who, as agrarian capitalists, were good at commercial agriculture, invested in industrial ventures such as diamond-cutting in Surat. They were clearly the main beneficiaries of the business-friendly state policy supporting small-scale enterprises while resisting the licence raj. Patels are probably better represented among professionals and industrialists than any other peasant caste in the whole of India. As a result, Gujarat is one of the few states where non-ST, non-SC and non-OBC groups represent a minuscule minority of those below the poverty line. In 2004-05, according to the NSS, only 4.2 per cent of those living in rural Gujarat and 7 per cent of urban dwellers were in this category, of which Patels are the largest component.
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Patels have also made a fortune overseas. They are probably in a majority in the Indian diaspora in the United States. There are about 1.7 million Patels in the US, working primarily in hotels and motels (sometimes nicknamed “potels”). Gujarati politicians have cultivated relationships with these non-resident Gujaratis who send money back home, making local Patels even richer.
Politically, Patels are also dominant. Not only the chief minister, Anandiben Patel, but seven senior members in a ministry of 27, the BJP chief in the state, five MPs and over three dozen MLAs also come from this group.
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Another paradox is that Patidars shifted loyalty from the Congress, their traditional party since the Sardar’s days, to the BJP because of their rejection of the very idea of quotas. This movement took place after Madhavsinh Solanki, a Kshatriya (OBC), initiated a formidable alliance that included Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims during the electoral campaign of 1977. This KHAM coalition could not, then, deal with the unpopularity of the post-Emergency Congress, but the party successfully repeated this strategy in the 1980 elections. For the first time, OBC MLAs formed the largest group in the legislative assembly, with 24 per cent; Patidars came second with 21 per cent. Solanki’s government was overwhelmingly lower class in composition: 13 of its 22 ministers were either Kshatriya, OBC, Dalit or Adivasi. None was Patel, as Patidars started to be referred to 1980s onwards.
After Solanki’s victory, OBCs were admitted to quotas that had been decided in the 1970s for postgraduate medical faculties. In response, students from B.J. Medical College in Ahmedabad launched an agitation in December 1980 and submitted to the government a memorandum to dilute the reservation policy. Solanki immediately made concessions, but these were rejected by the students, who demanded the abolition of all employment and education reservations.
Solanki continued with his “quota politics” during the 1985 elections. He supported an increase in quotas up to 28 per cent for OBCs. This 28 per cent, added to the 14 per cent reservations for STs and 7 per cent for SCs, meant that 49 per cent of positions in higher education and state government employment were now “reserved”. These decisions partly explained the success of the Congress in the March 1985 state elections, in which it won a record number of seats: 149. In his ministry, 14 of 20 ministers were Kshatriya.
Anti-reservation demonstrations multiplied after the formation of the government, in which only one Patidar had a senior post. Once again, students were at the forefront of the protests. Their leader, Shankarbhai Patel, was a member of the Janata Party — the party of Chimanbhai Patel, who became CM in 1990-94. Students took their protest to the streets. It was the first time that middle-class men and women took to the streets in this context, displaying no apparent qualms about targeting their low-caste neighbours.
Eventually, Solanki had to resign. Over 100 people had died and thousands made homeless. The memory of this violence probably explains Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent call for calm. Solanki accused the Patels of ousting him, an interpretation that is corroborated by the fact that the Patels shifted massively to the BJP in the following years. First the BJP joined hands with Chimanbhai and then, in the 1995 elections, the party nominated many Patidar candidates and projected one of its senior leaders, Keshubhai Patel, as the new leader of the Patidars. While in the 1995 state elections, according to CSDS data, as many OBCs (38 per cent) supported the BJP as the Congress, 67 per cent of Patidars voted for the BJP (against 20 per cent for the Congress). Patidars now represented 30 per cent of the BJP’s 121 MLAs (up from 28 per cent in 1990), while the OBCs had declined by 5 per cent (43 against 48). The Patels remained solidly behind Modi when he became CM. In 2002, 82 per cent of them voted for the BJP.
While the Patels’ demand to be recognised as OBCs is paradoxical, it can be explained. Like in the 1980s, politicians play a role. The Congress is probably trying to destabilise the CM and replace communal polarisation with caste-based social polarisation to consolidate its support among the OBCs, from where come party leaders like Shankersinh Vaghela and Shaktisinh Gohil. Anandiben may exacerbate passions she thinks she will be in a position to pacify in order to assert her authority vis-à-vis the BJP president, Amit Shah. Her opponents within the state BJP, and even the government, play with fire in the usual factional manner.
But while these three scenarios are plausible and not mutually exclusive, it is difficult to imagine that hundreds of thousands of Patels could be so manipulated. There is always some substance in mass movements. In that case, the Patels may well be victims of the neo-middle-class syndrome. Those who have not yet arrived, who are part of this aspiring class, and find it difficult to achieve their goals because jobs are scarce, education is expensive (especially if you can’t buy your degree), buying a car is hard, to say nothing about a home. The so-called Gujarat model has not favoured the SMEs as much as the capital-intensive industries that do not create as many jobs. Frustrations are particularly acute when expectations have been fanned in the name of “achhe din”. As a result, young Patels fall back on the old issue: reservations. Not necessarily to get their share of it — even if they try, they know it will be hard — but to destabilise the system and dilute it. In that sense, their movement is not too different from the “aandolans” of the 1980s.
This agenda is in tune with the views of the BJP and Modi, the OBC leader who did not need reservations to rise. For them, reservations, if any, should be on a socio-economic basis. Gujarat, the first state to fight caste-based reservations, may also be the first to reinvent the system. But following such a path may result in counter-mobilisations from the OBCs and resurrect the ghost of Mandal, as clashes between Patels and OBCs in some villages already show.
The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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