For both the BJP and Congress in Gujarat, this is a critical time. Whether the Patels’ frustration with the system of reservation will take them away from the BJP — whose two-decade rule rests on the foundation of Patel support — is the big question. The BJP has said the quota system won’t be changed; the Congress has refused to come out on the Patel demand for economic criteria in reservation. The Congress also remains unsure whether the Patels, often seen as part of the BJP’s Hindutva votebank, would switch loyalties en bloc to the ‘secular’ side.
“What has been happening since July is rooted in the failures of Gujarat’s economy, which has rendered thousands youth unemployed in the textiles, diamonds, and small- and medium-scale industries. The Gujarat model is the cause of both the agitation by the Patels and the counter-agitations by the non-Patels,” said Ashok Chaudhary of Adivasi Ekta Parishad, an independent tribal organisation based in Vedchi, South Gujarat.
Chaudhary and many other community leaders believe that had education not become hopelessly expensive and the cost of healthcare remained within reach of the poor and middle classes, the current crisis would not have hit. Patidar agitation leader Hardik Patel got a huge response only because the vacuum that Modi left behind was filled by the frustrations of people who found life’s good — often essential — things out of reach.
Among non-Patels, a frequent refrain these days is that poor Patels should direct their anger at rich Patels who are largely responsible for the profiteering in education. Five universities in Central and North Gujarat — including the Vallabh Vidyanagar complex near Anand, Nirma University on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, and Ganpat University near Mehsana — are run by wealthy Patels. Poor parents are sometimes forced to sell their land or mortgage homes to send their children to private educational institutions, which feeds their anger against reservation.
The Patel agitation has signalled the first clear weakening of the BJP’s base since 1995, when Keshubhai Patel kicked off the BJP era in Gandhinagar. With Modi’s exit from the state, several new political undercurrents too have become visible.
A largescale movement has been initiated by anti-BJP and pro-reservation forces to bring OBCs, Dalits, tribals on one platform to counter the Patel agitation. Eight OBCHA (OBC, Harijan, Adivasi) meetings have been planned across the state; one such meeting took place in Vyara on September 17.
On the other hand, while the law of diminishing returns may have begun to catch up with Hardik, upper castes like Brahmins, Jains, Nagars and Banias solidly back the idea of reservations for the poor. And according to Patel leaders, members of the community are convinced that reservation is injustice by another name, and that the government must be forced to bring quotas based on economic criteria. Given this mood, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s assertion that it needs to be seen “which categories require reservation and for how long”, and Manmohan Vaidya’s interview to Gujarati weekly Sadhana about “poor classes”, has connected well.
“After a very long time, we are seeing a lowering of the Hindutva fever in educated Gujaratis,” Chaudhary said. Many political observers feel the state is headed towards 1985-type caste tension, when Madhavsinh Solanki raised the OBC quota from 10% to 27%. Solanki won two elections on the strength of his KHAM (Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim) combination, but totally alienated the Patels.
The new OBC-Dalit-tribal coalition has had a quiet launch, but should the Anandiben Patel government extend an attractive favour such as scholarships for Patel students or an arrangement to help unemployed Patel youth, a massive reaction may be triggered, said Valjibhai Patel of Dalit Panther, who also runs the Council for Social Justice.
Modi’s move to Delhi has unleashed politics over which the traditional political class does not have full control. Hundreds of community outfits that lay dormant during Modi’s 14-year rule have suddenly found their voices. If the Patels are speaking out, forces opposed to them are equally vocal and loud. Alpesh Thakore of the Thakore Kshatriya Sena, who has sewn together a socio-political alliance of Dalits, tribals and Thakores, has been getting bigger and more loyal crowds than Hardik.
Both pro- and anti-reservation forces are sharpening their knives in Viramgaum, Mehsana and Visnagar in North Gujarat. WhatsApp messages have been their vehicle of mobilisation — and if the deaths of eight Patel youths in Central Gujarat have dominated the social media platform among Patels in Viramgaum and surrounding areas, Thakore’s organisation has tapped into live contacts in more than 7,000 villages.
“Television has done injustice to Alpesh Thakore by giving disproportionate coverage to Hardik Patel and his rallies. The silent majority of Gujarat is listening to Alpesh,” said a senior Congress OBC leader. Thakore, a “lower caste Rajput”, is the son of Khodaji Thakore, once a close friend of Modi’s, who now heads the Ahmedabad district Congress.
According to Valjibhai, Patel anti-reservation lobbies have spread the “canard” that the Constitution wanted to end reservation in 10 years. “Only political reservation was to be reviewed after 10 years, not reservation for OBCs, SCs and STs in education and jobs,” he said. “The Patels’ demand is impossible to fulfill. We sympathise with the poor, but Patels must understand that reservation was not invented for economic equality. Reservation is for social equality, not a tool to remove poverty,” Valjibhai said. “Gujarat will see violence if there is a change in status
When Modi was in Gandhinagar, he sold a template of development that was adored by the middle classes. With his mass communication skills, he was able to manoeuvre the discourse towards “hope for a better future”. Anandiben has been unable to do the same. The CM was also slow in reacting to the situation, and in controlling the debate. She can’t be seen to either favour the Patels or to ignore their concerns completely. A source of comfort for her lies in the fact that answers to the larger questions thrown up by the agitation must be found not by her, but by Prime Minister Modi.