Patels add another worry for Modi

S Madhusudhana Rao

The poster boy of Patel community in Gujarat, Hardik Patel, is an unlikely comparison to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. But often the 22-year-old invokes the legendary ‘Iron Man’ of India to champion reservations for Patels in jobs and college admissions in his state during his speeches. He has thrown enough hints suggesting that he would like to be called Sardar Hardik, in an apparent indication that the struggle for his clan quotas is as lofty as it was by  the  ‘strongman’ of India’s Independence movement.

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S Madhusudhana Rao

Hardly known outside of his home state, Hardik launched the quota stir on July 6 this year under the banner of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) at a modest rally in a small town Visnagar. None had thought that the fiery speaker would become a rallying point for millions of Patels, also known as Patidars, in a month’s time and hit the national headlines. In fact, he has achieved a cult status with his Ahmedabad rally on August 25 where lakhs of Patels had gathered to hear him.

The massive public meeting where Hardik had thundered that “reservations for all and no caste-based quotas” could have been passed off peacefully but for the Gujarat police’s alleged highhandedness and over-enthusiasm. The cops’ attempt to disperse a motley crowd at the venue after the meeting was over and the arrest of Hardik Patel had resulted in violence that claimed at least 10 lives.

The fallout, as later developments have proved, is the PAAS convener, who could be easily mistaken as a student leader with a youthful demeanor and bursting energy, has been catapulted onto the national stage. Now, his agenda is pan-Indian and ambition is political. Since his release, he has grown in stature and his voice is being heard across the country. The fact that he has taken the quota battle cry to Delhi and is planning to hold meetings in Patidar-strong states like Uttar Pradesh to galvanize Gujarat Patel counterparts shows that Hardik is on a national Patidar unity mission.

Already, Patel leaders in politically sensitive Uttar Pradesh have sounded out their support to the PAAS founder. Their backing comes despite the fact that the community locally known as Kurmis enjoys benefits extended to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category.

Their interest in PAAS campaign is to pitch their demand. Sarvesh Katiyar, national president of the Akhil Bharatiya Kurmi Kshatriya Mahasabha, told the Hindustan Times, “If he seeks our support, we will surely extend it. While it is true the kurmis get reservation in Uttar Pradesh, through him we could raise the demand to increase our quota.” In the coming days, as Hardik’s campaign starts gaining more support from a youthful population – he puts the total number of Patels of all categories at 27 crores – he hopes to turn it into a formidable movement.

But the two national parties BJP and Congress dismiss such a possibility in the context of reservations since quota demands are state-specific and community-based. Given the mindboggling number of communities, castes, sub-castes and groups that exist in this country, any attempt to unify one particular community, albeit with different names, spread across a few regions is bound to fail because it is difficult to sustain the tempo over a period of time and the ethnic differences intrinsic to such campaigns.

However, what can’t be ignored are the issues raised by Hardik Patel. Though the categorization of communities into Scheduled Classes, Scheduled Tribees, Backward Classes, Other Backward Classes, etc. is intended to help economically weaker sections of society, the classification has led to compartmentalization of society.

Over the decades, political parties have turned various ‘class’ segments into vote banks. Not surprisingly, state governments have been vying with each other  to extend benefits to these ‘classes’ under certain percentage of quotas and reservations in government jobs and seats in educational institutions.

In the name of social justice and affirmative action, some parties have gone overboard to appease people belonging to various castes and sub-castes to create perpetual vote banks. In the process, the caste-ridden society has divided further and those who have been left out of the groups resort to agitations for getting a ‘class tag’ to benefit from the quota/reservation regime. Thus what we witness today in peaceful or violent stirs for reservations is a manifest of political exploitation of affirmative action.

When poverty has neither religion nor caste, why special privileges are given to caste-based groups? Moreover, their scope is widened whenever there is a strong violent demand from some sections. Poverty is universal and the parameters we set for defining it may vary from country to country. In India, we witness rich and poor in every community. In the so-called forward communities, we do have people living in penury. But they are denied the benefits extended to ‘categorized’ people simply because they belong to upper castes. Is it social justice?

Similar is the case with job and college admission quotas. A brilliant student may not get admission to a professional college or a topper may be denied a government job under the admissibility criteria. The quota/reservation decisions have been challenged many times in courts which have set limits in some cases. Despite courts’ guidelines, demand for quotas keeps raising in one state or the other. If it was Rajasthan by Gujjars, it could come from Jats in Haryana. Now, it is the Patels’ turn in Gujarat. What these demands boil down to is it’s time to decide once and for all whether we want to continue with caste as the yardstick or poverty level as the base for affirmative action.

Hardik’s demand to include Patels in other backward castes (OBC) or abolish the caste-based quota system may not find many takers among the mainstream political parties. For, Patels of Gujarat are considered among the most prosperous communities not only in their home state but all over the world. Motels in the US are synonymous with Patels. At one time, they used to boast that there was no motel in the US without a Patel! Similarly, their penetration in East Africa is so deep that most of the businesses are in their hands. The diamond city of Surat that cuts and polishes three-fourths of world raw gems is in the hands of Patels. Nearly 15 per cent of Gujarat’s population is Patels whose business and trade acumen is legendary. Then how can they demand OBC status? If the government accedes to such demand, what about communities that are suffering silently because none raises voice for them?

Hardik Patel says the prosperous Patels in the state and their NRI cousins are only a minority. The majority of Patels in the countryside are poor and they should be brought under OBC. While the claim deserves the benefit of the doubt, what perplexes political observers and ordinary people is Hardik’s sudden rise. His claim he doesn’t have any political support is difficult to swallow. How did he mobilize lakhs of people for his Ahmedabad rally and who is backing him from behind? These are all unanswered questions.

Whatever the mystery behind Hardik Patel’s power is, he has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose citation of Gujarat model for national development has taken a severe beating. Also, the state government’s (mis)handling of Patels’ rally shows there is something amiss with Chief Minister Anandiben Patel’s governance. Another worry for Modi.

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