The Patel agitation presents a serious problem for Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel this time. Not all the people who gathered at the GMDC ground for Hardik Patel’s rally were part of any Patidar organisation. Many educated families with their sons and daughters were there to join in emotive sloganeering because they perceive themselves as victims of reservation. So whether they hope to get into reservation quotas or totally abolish the quota system, Gujaratis are up on their feet protesting.
The BJP, which has retained power since 1998, has by and large had the support of the Patels, constituting 14 percent of the population. The sudden uprising hints at how the party failed to understand its own electorate.
A perception of common crisis leads to mass mobilisation. This is what happened in Gujarat too in the last few days. Youth looking for job avenues in public and private sector while farmers in dire straits, struggling to earn a livelihood, came together to draw the attention of the government to their plight.
If the party takes a serious view of the situation, the BJP has a tough task ahead to please its voters before the 2017 Assembly election. Interestingly, Gujarat is not new to such movements. But there is an altogether different twist this time. In 1981, it was these Patels who fought together against reservation and changed the entire course of Gujarat politics. Now, after all these decades, it is these Patels wanting to be part of the reservation category. Apparently, the demand and the political battlefield of the state has changed.
“In 1980 the anti-reservation movement was very active in Gujarat. Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki polarised Gujarat electorate as KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim). Solanki’s political tact worked and he won the election that year. The consequence, however, was sidelining of the Patel community. The political drama brought Patels to the forefront in the anti-reservation fight,” says Achyut Yagnik, an Ahmedabad-based social scientist and founder-secretary of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action.
“In 1985, Solanki once again tried to increase the percentage of the KHAM electorate. This time, however, Patels gave their complete support to the Bharatiya Janata Party which was then Jana Sangh. Congress lost the election that year,” he said.
Therefore in 1990, Patels became the backbone of the BJP. “One can gauge the strength of the Patel community from the fact that a Patel was the chief minister before and after Narendra Modi took the seat in Gujarat. Out of 120 BJP MLAs, 40 are Patels and seven ministers are holding the cabinet position in the state,” explains Yagnik.
In this array of events, one cannot ignore Hardik Patel’s personal leadership ambitions. The strength of his movement lay in bringing together Kadwa and Leuva Patels – the two major Patel communities — who have traditionally not shared a bond due to religious and ideological differences. It was by relying on the differences between them that Keshubhai Patel, one of the top leaders, left the BJP in 2012 to launch his own Gujarat Parivartan Party and entered the electoral battlefield alone.