Decoding the Patel factor in Gujarat election

RAJESH SINGH | 22 Nov 2017 10:22 AM

Hardik Patel/ ABP News image

The Patidars in Gujarat are in the limelight today and are happy flexing their electoral muscle. But they are also an embarrassed lot. Travelling across Ahmedabad to Patan to Mehsana and the hinterlands, this columnist spoke to several Patel community members on their demand for reservations and support to Hardik Patel. They could not convincingly explain why they needed the benefits of the quota system. In fact, they did not appear convinced themselves.

One young Patel from Mehsana sheepishly admitted that most Patidars in the State were either landed, self-employed or salaried people. Besides, given the primacy Patels extend to education, most youngsters of the community were educationally equipped to manage their affairs. “Actually, we don’t need reservations, but we are with Hardik Patel because we don’t want to be left out.”

This contradiction was a recurring theme. In Patan, close to a village that has the Rani ki Vav (Queen’s step-well), a Unesco-designated World Heritage Site, an elderly Patidar who seemed to command the respect of fellow villagers, remarked, “It is disgraceful that we should be demanding reservation. We are presenting ourselves as a marginalised lot and thus demeaning our status of decades and centuries.” The Patels this columnist spoke to in Ahmedabad city said they would prefer concentrating on their business than attending pro-quota rallies.

How then has the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel managed such traction when members of his community are not enthusiastic about being added to the list of reservation beneficiaries? How is it that he has managed to draw huge crowds at his rallies? The call for reservation appears to have been just a reason for the Patels to ‘unite’. To begin with, Hardik Patel was himself opposed in principle to reservation of any kind. But realising that this would get him nowhere, he switched track and began to demand quota benefits for the Patidars. He played the victim card on three grounds.

The first was that the Patels were being squeezed out of Government jobs and admissions to educational institutions because the quota system favoured the rest. The second was that there were thousands of poorly-off Patel families who deserved a leg-up. And the third was that the ruling BJP which had enjoyed unstinted Patel support in electoral battles, had ignored the grievances in general of the Patidars.

But, as a 30-something Somabhai Patel from Mehsana said, the real reason for the escalation of the Hardik Patel-led agitation against the BJP was the August 2015 incident. As the pro-reservation movement in parts of Gujarat turned violent, the State police and the Army cracked down on the agitators. Several people lost their lives. Somabhai Patel accepted that the protest had turned wrong, since buses had been torched and public property damaged by agitators. But he added that the matter could have been more sensitively handled by the then Government of Chief Minister Anandiben Patel. “She, acting on the Centre’s behest, let loose the State machinery and brutalised the Patidars. It’s revenge for that, which we are now seeking.”

Karsanbhai Patel, a resident of Ahmedabad, was inclined to go with this theory. He said, “Reservation was a small matter. The Government could have resolved the issue through dialogue with the agitating Patidar community and its leader Hardik Patel. The Patidars know the complications of the quota benefit, and many are actually not even keen on it. But after the harsh way the State regime dealt with Patel agitators, the reservation demand has become a matter of prestige.”

Hardik Patel may have become some kind of a hero partly as a result of the State Government’s mishandling of the issue and partly because the youth intuitively, even if for a while, gravitate towards the fire-spewing leader. While substance takes a back seat, histrionics becomes important. But, despite the initial advantage, there is no indication that the PAAS leader will ground the BJP to dust even in his strongholds.

There are rumblings within his organisation that PAAS is being given a raw deal by the Congress. The first list of candidates the Congress announced left the Patel outfit fuming. The Hardik Patel led group believes that the Congress has a chance this time around largely because of its support, and it must be given a fair representation. On the other hand, the Congress leadership is under pressure to accommodate party loyalists to the maximum.

There is also the non-PAAS Patidar factor to be accounted for. It may appear from a distance that the Hardik Patel group is the only major Patel community influencer in Gujarat. But conversations with people on the streets in north Gujarat and Ahmedabad, offer an alternative perspective. In Mehsana, a shop-keeper whose Patel identity was not hidden, pointed out that various Patidar groups had expressed their support to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

He was referring to the Patidar Organisation Committee (POC), an umbrella of six powerful Patel groups, which had held talks with the BJP leadership in September and lashed out at Hardik Patel. The POC convenor, RP Patel had accused Hardik Patel of leading a “personal anamat andolan”. He claimed that the demands of the Patidar community had been represented effectively by the six groups and that PAAS was nowhere in the picture. Another POC leader CK Patel, referring to the PAAS agitation, added that the “Patidar community should not be used as a tool”.

(The writer is Visiting Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation, senior political commentator and public affairs analyst)

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