- Hardik Patel’s agitation for OBC status to Patels has drifted into violence
- Other OBC groups and SC/STs are threatening to oppose the Patels, on the streets if necessary
- Patels, on the contrary, are planning to take the debate national, calling for a rethink on reservation per se
- The consequences could be dangerous, with groups like Jats and Gujjars already demanding reservations
- Anandiben has a tough problem on hand, going beyond the forthcoming local self-government elections
- Nationally, the debate could prove volatile. The situation is fraught with complexities that may spin out of control.
A cartoon in the Indian Express said it all: Amit Shah in caricature, being told that he had promised to make a Gujarat out of Bihar and had instead made a Bihar out of Gujarat. Indeed, an agitation for caste-based reservations by the powerful Patel community has roiled a state that used to be held up by former chief minister Narendra Modi as a model of development. His protege, present CM Anandiben Patel, is having to contend with a quota agitation by her powerful Patel community that threatens to spin out of control. It evokes smoke-billowing pictures of past protests: buses burning, mobs rioting, police going berserk with lathis, teargas and bullets. Already, some ten people have died in police firing. Some 150 buses were burnt or damaged and government offices attacked by protesters. The targeting of policemen and the burning of police stations has forced Anandiben to call for central forces and army reinforcements.
The Patidars have raised the demand for reservation in government jobs and professional courses in the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) category. Since the Patels are a powerful community, well represented politically and with strong participation in business and the professions, the 146 other communities in the OBC category, along with the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe groups, together oppose the Patels’ demand, deeming them a forward group. These communities too have threatened to take to the streets. “We will not allow it at any cost,” says Alpesh Thakore, an OBC leader. “Essentially, theirs is a question of greed not need.”
It’s a fervour matching that of Hardik Patel, who is leading Patidar andolan. Two months ago, no one knew of the 22-year-old with a taste for guns. News of his arrest today sends the 1.8 crore Patidars of Gujarat into a frenzy, holding the state to ransom in a dance of destruction. Hardik graduated with less than 50 per cent marks in commerce from a college in Ahmedabad. He runs a small business in submersible pumps in Viramgam, 60 km from Ahmedabad, and had forayed into “social work”—confined largely to his community—only in 2011. His only brush with politics was when he would invite Patel politicians for functions organised by a Sardar Patel Group, which he headed in his town. Hearing the complaints of youth that college admissions and jobs were hard to come by, he decided to launch a reservation stir, beginning with a rally in a Mehsana village to build public opinion. Soon, he launched off on his own with the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS).
While Hardik may have caught the fancy of the media and the masses with his stridency, his lack of respect for authority and his loud defiance, it’s quite clear he cannot but have the backing of powerful figures. Lalji Patel of the Sardar Patel Group and numerous other young leaders from the community form the core that drives the reservation stir.
The massive rally organised in Ahmedabad on August 25 was the culmination of a joint effort between disparate groups, and the CM had to personally come to receive the charter of demands at the venue. It was then that Hardik chose to draw attention to himself by departing from the script and announcing a fast. That act virtually ended the fragile peace stitched together between the feuding groups and Lalji Patel of spg. By evening, just a few thousand people were left on the spot with Hardik. But the police swoop on the venue, a brutal lathicharge and the arrest of Hardik soon drew the limelight to him.
The leaders of the Patidar agitation make no secret of their desire to extend their stir to other parts of the country in an attempt to force a national rethink on the entire reservation policy. The Gujarat government has made it clear that Patels don’t meet the Mandal Commission criteria for inclusion in the OBC category. “Either we get reservation or no one gets it” is a common refrain across the community. Hardik, who has forged links with the Gujjars in Rajasthan, has threatened to go national with the demand, with a big outing at Jantar Mantar. Widening it beyond Gujarat seems the inevitable next step. The logic: similar land-owning groups across India have 117 MPs. Chief ministers Nitish Kumar of Bihar and Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra too are cited, the Kurmi-Patel-Naidu axis having its own history of mobilisation from the British days. (One reason why Nitish came out in support of the demand, while his party boss Sharad Yadav spoke against it.)
The big question that has gone without clear answers is: who is behind it all? The meticulous attention to detail, the organisation of rallies and mobilisation of people—who has made it possible for Hardik? True, it’s a prosperous, powerful community asserting itself, but the consensus is Hardik could not have managed it all by himself. Varun Patel, chief spokesman of the spg, has been quoted on record that “in the last ten days a mastermind has emerged who is using Hardik like a pawn. He is going through an image makeover himself, but the agitation is benefiting from it”. He didn’t elaborate on who it could be. There’s no guessing.
Initially, it was believed the agitation was backed by disgruntled BJP leaders keen on jolting Anandiben, who enjoys the unqualified support of Modi. The reasoning: reverses in local elections caused by the violent stir would undermine her position. But as it has turned out, reservation being a potent issue, the stir has gathered its own momentum, and these disgruntled elements are learnt to have been marginalised.
The Congress and others see a dark conspiracy orchestrated from Delhi as part of a larger gameplan. The “Brahminist” RSS is tossed into this mix. Sub-plots play out on social media. Agitation leaders had mobilised much support through WhatsApp and other mediums. Now, fanning the flames, photographs have emerged of Hardik with VHP leader Pravin Togadia and Gordhan Zadaphia, both Patels. Zadaphia is a BJP pointsman who had been sent to UP by the organisation to establish links with the Kurmis (associated with the Patels). A diehard VHP man and Togadia follower, Zadaphia had at one point spurned a place in the Modi cabinet. He had quit the BJP to form his own outfit—it contested the 2007 assembly polls but came a cropper. Since, he’s been with the VHP and returned to the BJP before the 2014 polls.
Whoever is backing him, Hardik has emerged as a strident new face, a Raj Thackeray of sorts for Gujarat—with huge crowds behind him and vaulting ambitions. He seems to have tapped into a powerful, emotive issue at just the right time. With the SCs and STs threatening to take to the streets to oppose the Patidars, the Gujarat model may be in danger of being remade. Dangerously.
By R.K. Misra in Gandhinagar