Last month, the Congress elevated Hardik Patel, 26, to the post of working president of its Gujarat unit. This strategic move, a few months before eight assembly by-polls and local elections, transfigures the state’s politics and Gujarat Congress in critical ways.
Hardik Patel began his political career in 2015, attending to the Patel community’s demand for recognition as an Other Backward Class (OBC). He turned against the BJP when the agitation was crushed, resulting in the death of nine young men and the arrest of about 1,500 others. Patel spent 200 days in jail before the Gujarat High Court asked him to stay out of the state for six months. During this time, he became closer to the Congress and supported the party in the 2017 election.
Gradually, he re-configured his political narrative to expand his reach beyond rural Patels. He has set aside the quota question after joining the Congress in 2019 and following the introduction of the 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections. He now tries to appear as a peasant and youth leader.
This evolution is in tune with the Congress’s evolution in Gujarat. Patels used to support the Congress until the 1960s, when it became a safe home for Brahmins and Banias. From the late-1970s, the Congress turned to the OBCs, especially to the Kshatriya-Thakors and Kolis under the leadership of Madhavsinh Solanki, who was also popular among Harijans (Dalits), Adivasis and Muslims (hence the famous KHAM coalition). This caste-based coalition further alienated the Patels, who fully shifted to the BJP, as Banias and Brahmins had already done. The Hindu nationalist coalition was solidified under Narendra Modi in the wake of the 2002 communal violence.
The Congress has gradually realised that its old understanding of caste politics, which was devoid of caste-class interaction, would not take it far in a post-liberalisation environment. It has since established itself as a party of rural Gujarat, first in Saurashtra (as evident from the 2015 local elections), and then across the state, while the BJP remained more urban and middle-class oriented. This rural-urban dynamic became noticeable in the 2017 assembly election — 57 of the Congress’s 77 MLAs came from predominantly rural constituencies, while the BJP won 46 of 56 urban seats.
The urban/rural divide is increasingly manifest in politics because of the evolution of the economy, where industry developed, to some extent, at the expense of agriculture. MSMEs have been affected by the rise of oligopolies and highly capitalistic investments have not created adequate jobs. As per the Socio-Economic Review of Gujarat (2019-20), every Rs 1 crore of investment by big industries has created little above three additional jobs from 1983 till now!
The Patels, like the Marathas and Jats, are themselves divided along the urban/rural line. A Kalaiyarasan’s calculations based on the Indian Human Development Survey reveal that 20 per cent of the richest among the Patels cornered 61.4 per cent of the community’s total income in 2011-12 (against 52.8 per cent in 2004-5), whereas 20 per cent of the poorest got only 2.8 per cent (against 4.1 per cent seven years before). In the case of poor Patels, this socio-economic trend is even more unfavourable as they lag behind OBCs and Dalits. In 2011-12, the mean income of the bottom 20 per cent of Patels (Rs 6,978) was almost half the mean income of the second to the bottom quintile of Dalits (Rs 11,411). The closing of the gap is even more obvious between Patels and OBCs: The third quintile of the Kolis and other OBCs earn almost as much as the second to the bottom quintile of the Patels and their top 20-40 per cent earns almost as much as the third quintile of Patels. The class element among Patels coincides with the urban/rural divide, as the rich Patels are those who have successfully moved to urban Gujarat and share bonds with the wealthy Gujarati diaspora in the US. Poor Patels are still in villages and cannot find a good job in town.
These divisions are visible in Gujarat’s polity. While the Congress represents the rural Patels, the BJP is more of a spokesperson of the urban ones. Only one of the 15 Patel Congress legislators hails from an urban seat, whereas over three-fourths of the 29 Patel BJP MLAs come from predominantly urban seats. Certainly, Patels run the show in Vijay Rupani’s government, with half of the cabinet “reserved” for them. But, the most influential Patel ministers — Deputy CM Nitin Patel, Kaushik Patel, Saurabh Patel — represent industrial-urban interests. The OBCs, who occupy about 30 per cent of the BJP’s legislative body, had just one cabinet spot until the cabinet expansion in early 2019, after which they got two additional cabinet ministers (both Congress turncoats). In contrast, the Congress is in the hands of young OBC and Patidar faces from a rural background. Besides Hardik Patel, the party’s regional president, Amit Chavda is an OBC leader from central Gujarat and the opposition leader in the Vidhan Sabha, Paresh Dhanani, is a Leuva Patel from Amreli.
The position of a kisan leader has long been vacant in Gujarat. Keshubhai Patel, Gujarat’s chief minister before Modi, was the last powerful politician to canvass for farmers openly. Hardik Patel may get to don the hat of a kisan leader. In the 1980s, the Gujarat Congress initiated a new form of caste politics that announced the Mandal and Bahujan moment. Today, it may inaugurate the return of the kind of kisan politics that Charan Singh had promoted, in the backdrop of an agricultural crisis that makes the urban/rural divide even more pronounced. What remains to be seen is whether the party will stand also by those at the bottom of rural society — the landless labourers from Adivasi, lower OBC and Dalit milieux.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 30, 2020 under the title ‘Caste to kisan politics’. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London. Laliwala is an independent scholar on politics and history of Gujarat
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