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01 September, 2015

The Hardik Patel phenomenon

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

An estimated half a million members of Gujarat’s powerful Patel community turned up at a rally in the city of Ahmedabad last week to cheer a young leader who has been in public life for just a few months. Sections of the media hailed him as the new Sardar, an allusion to Vallabhbhai Patel, the tallest Gujarati freedom-fighter after Gandhi and the most powerful minister after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in free India’s first government.

Vallabhbhai Patel was not an instant hero. A barrister at law, he organised successful non-violent agitations by peasants of Gujarat before Gandhi conferred on him the title of Sardar.

Thanks to the social media and the vast resources he commands as the champion of the interests of a community whose members have made good in business at home and abroad, Hardik Patel, 22, who comes from a family of Bharatiya Janata Party loyalists, got to the top in a jiffy.

His sole demand is reservation for the Patels in educational institutions and government jobs. Under the Constitution, the government can make special provisions for “socially and educationally backward classes”. It is not easy to squeeze into that term the Patels who reportedly own 70 per cent of the state’s small and medium enterprises.

Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, herself a member of the community, said the demand could not be conceded as the Supreme Court had set a 50 per cent cap on reservations. As much as 49.5 per cent has been dished out to various communities already.

The Patel community was solidly behind the BJP when its student wing launched a violent agitation against the Central government’s 1990 decision to accept the Mandal Commission recommendation and extend reservation, which until then was limited to the Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and the Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis), to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) as well.

The Mandal Commission was appointed by the Janata Party government, of which the BJP’s earlier avatar, Jana Sangh, was a part. It estimated that the OBCs constitute 52 per cent of the population.

The Patel agitation turned violent following a wholly unwarranted police intervention, which resulted in nine deaths. The state imposed curfew on some towns and deployed paramilitary forces to restore order.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a televised appeal for calm. He said violence could not solve any problem and offered to find a solution through talks.

Political pundits are now trying to find answers to questions thrown up by the Hardik Patel phenomenon. How could he suddenly emerge from nowhere and hold the state to ransom? Has he been set up by unseen forces with an agenda of their own? Does he really want reservation for his community or is he queering the pitch for abolition of reservation?

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue MG Vaidya and Vishwa Hindu Parishad President Pravin Togadia took the opportunity provided by the Patel revolt to call for an end to reservation.

Some powerful communities in other states were able to pressure governments into granting them reservation but the courts have blocked it.

The previous Central government classified the Jats, who are a big force in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi, as an OBC. The Supreme Court scrapped the order.

The Maharashtra government sanctioned 16 per cent reservation to the Maratha community, which owns much of the land in the state and has provided 12 of the last 17 chief ministers. The High Court has stayed the order, pending detailed examination.

The Gujjars of Rajasthan, who have one per cent OBC reservation, are on an agitation seeking five per cent reservation as a Scheduled Tribe.

One explanation for the demand for reservation from castes with political clout is that they find that children belonging to castes which enjoy the benefit of reservation are gaining a lead over their own children in the job market by acquiring professional education.

Hardik Patel went to Delhi on Sunday to meet Jat and Gujjar leaders. His reference to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu as “our people” indicates that a broad national coalition of middle castes may be on his mind.

There are several regional and small national parties which draw support from such social groups. By and large, they are secular in outlook. They are unlikely to come under the spell of a wayward child of Hindutva like Hardik Patel. -- Gulf Today, September 1, 2015.

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