How does one decipher the demand of the Patel community for OBC status? For that, one has to unravel the socio-political significance of the movement.
As is now well established, the Patel community was in the forefront of an agitation against reservation for Dalits, Adivasis and other backward castes three decades ago. The current protest, on the face of it, is a demand for reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. But there is more than meets the eye in the demand for OBC status for a community that has all these years maintained a position of dominance in all spheres of public life.
The Patels or Patidars, who constitute only 15 percent of the total population of the state, have been wielding disproportionate political and economic power after the formation of Gujarat. In the present state Assembly, of the 120 BJP members, 40 are from the Patel community. Apart from Chief Minister Anandiben, seven cabinet ministers are also from this community. As if to top it all, the community has dominated the diamond and textile business in the state in the past.
Despite the considerable political and economic heft, why the agitation? Several theories are doing the rounds. While some seek to understand this as a plot by those Sangh Parivar leaders who were sidelined by the juggernaut, others blame it on skewed economic development of the state,which marginalises even the traditional middle class. Some others point a finger at the reservation policy pursued by the state government,which they feel ‘discriminates’ people from a particular section of the community.
One cannnot, however, limit one’s understanding of the current agitation as one instigated by disillusioned leaders of Sangh Parivar outfits. That would be like missing woods for trees, because the slogan of the agitators — ‘Either include us in the OBC category or scrap all reservations once and for all’ — speaks volumes about the larger political motives behind the move. Having said that, chances of the PAAS getting logistical support from disenchanted leaders and groups can’t be discounted. But apart from those who are interested in the power politics within the Sangh Parivar, this does not carry much political significance for society at large.
Going back into post-independence years, the Patel community largely supported the Congress government. But with the marginalised sections of society becoming politically conscious, the Congress could not ignore them, forcing the party to resort to the social grouping of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims (KHAM). The social grouping worked in Congress’ favour, enabling it to rule the state till the 1980s.
It was during those times that the Patel community unleashed a campaign against reservation for Dalits and Adivasis. Politically, the community shifted its allegiance to the BJP. Socioeconomic trends and the anti- Dalit and anti-minority attitude of the community leaders were quite compatible with the Sangh Parivar ideology.