In a move that has befuddled many, the powerful and affluent Patel community in Gujarat, under the leadership of young Hardik Patel, has gone on the rampage demanding reservations. How will this fury be tamed?
By RK Misra in Ahmedabad
Just like microbes multiply by dividing, so does an India riven by caste-based reservations. There is ample evidence of this in the rich state of Gujarat, which has been up in flames recently because of the agitation of the numerically strong and financially solid Patidar (Patel) community which demands quotas.
Constituting about 14 percent of Gujarat’s total population of 63 million, they have 21 percent voter representation and are demanding caste-based reservation under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. This, despite the fact that they hold a cast-iron grip over the state. The political, administrative, legislative, trade and industrial levers of power in Gujarat are in their hands. In fact, 8 of the 24 ministers in the Anandiben Patel government and 42 of 182 legislators in the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha are Patels. Even the state BJP president, RC Fardu, belongs to their caste.
The Patels’ demand for reservation has plunged Gujarat into an unprecedented turmoil. The agitation, which began less than two months ago, has snowballed into a movement of sorts, catapulting its hitherto unknown 22-year-old leader, Hardik Patel, into national limelight.
On August 25, at a massive rally in Ahmedabad, he demanded that Anandiben personally come to the venue to receive their charter of demands under pain of an indefinite fast. Aware that this move for a fast had split the hastily united leadership of the Patidar movement, the administration retaliated in the only way it could. After night, a lathi-charge ensued, with the attacking cops damaging parked vehicles and arresting Hardik along with four of his fasting colleagues. The reprisal was fast and stunning, leaving the government dazed.
As news of the arrest spread like lightening, the entire state was up in flames, with government property, state transport buses, police stations and the police themselves becoming prime targets of Patel ire. With public appeals from both the chief minister and Prime Minister Narendra Modi falling on deaf ears, large contingents of paramilitary forces were airlifted in aid of the State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) and the Rapid Action Force. Hastily summoned columns of the army too carried out a flag march in Ahmedabad.
Though Patel was released in an hour, it was too late to stop the mayhem. An unrepentant Hardik told India Legal: “The full responsibility for the proliferating violence rests squarely on the shoulders of the administration. We had organized a huge rally, gathering almost 18 lakh people from all over the state without a blemish. Everything ended peacefully and the rallyists went back without a hitch.
It was thereafter in the night that the police brutally attacked the remaining people at the ground without any provocation and took me into custody for no rhyme or reason. The result is there for all to see.”
The statewide bandh called by him on August 26 after his release was a success, with “gangs” going around forcing shops, offices and business establishments to close down under pain of violence.
Political analysts have termed the goof-up by the government as Himalayan. A veteran Gujarat watcher said: “Laid low by the rapidly proliferating public agitation by the Patels, the government lost its nerve. It should have exercised patience to allow the differences within the various warring constituents to concretize.”
A senior bureaucrat, who handled numerous crises under both the Modi and Anan-diben governments, said on condition of anonymity: “Forced to play second fiddle to a greenhorn over the last two months, the government initially underestimated and then, was completely out of its depth in dealing with the agitators. It resorted to a knee-jerk reaction and came a cropper.”
But it should have heeded Hardik’s speech, which clearly spelt out that if their demands were not met, they would escalate the stir to the national level. He also unfolded the roadmap for it.
“Apart from the 1.80 crores in Gujarat, we number 27 crores in the country, with both Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu being in our community fold. Besides, we have a total of 117 MPs in the present parliament,” he reeled off. This was obviously a problem headed straight for Modi’s doorsteps in Delhi.
The Patidars’ game plan now is to enlarge the scope of their stir to the national level so as to force a review of the policy on reservation, with a single-point criteria of it being only for the economically backward class.
It is common knowledge that both the RSS and Modi favor it and would not be averse to a national debate on the subject. Highly placed sources aver that the Sangh Parivar has been keeping a sharp vigil on the agitation, with some of their leaders being in touch with VHP constituents. At the same time, they do not want any harm to come to the Anandiben government and are keen to apply the brakes to ensure this.
Nevertheless, what is exercising the minds of common people are these questions —Who is Hardik Patel and what is his background? Where does the agitation derive its managerial acumen and financial wherewithal?
Incidentally, Hardik Patel is the son of a farmer who also doubles up as a dealer of submersible pumps. He belongs to a middle class family from Chandrapur village in Viramgam taluka near Ahmedabad. A commerce graduate from an Ahmedabad college, Hardik is fond of cricket and has represented Baroda in inter-district cricket tournaments. Not many in the state know about his political affiliations, though there have been talks that he was at one stage involved with the Aam Aadmi Party.
By his own admission, he has no political affiliations, nor does he support any political party. “I have a one-point program, ie, to ensure that the Patidars achieve the purpose they set out to fulfill for which I am prepared to go to any length,” he told India Legal.
The fact of the matter is that the movement for OBC reservations for the Patels was the brainchild of a group of sidelined and disgruntled BJP leaders from the same community who had made common cause with others opposed to Anandiben. Her detractors were aware that she was in position to accede to their demands. They were also aware that she enjoyed Modi’s confidence and would not be permitted to be replaced. The idea was to embarrass her with a subdued showing in the ensuing elections to local self-government bodies due later this year.
They were, however, in for a shock when the agitation took off in right earnest, riding on the shoulders of the frustrated youth of the Patidar community. They were fed with visions of jobs aplenty through talks of a “Gujarat model” during Modi’s 12-year rule in the state. The BJP dissidents who backed this stir soon lost control of it and found themselves rendered irrelevant even as Hardik’s irreverent style and refusal to play footsie with the ruling party politicians only added to his aura.
The Intelligence Bureau has already submitted the names of those from the ruling BJP who were involved in aiding and abetting the Patidar movement and these have found their way to Modi through Anandiben.
For the moment, things stand delicately poised. While the issue of reservations acquiring national overtones to stimulate a debate is acceptable, this will not be at the cost of the Anandiben Patel government in Gujarat.