The election season has begun in Gujarat although the voting dates are yet to be announced. The Patidars are the crucial social group in this election with both BJP and Congress wooing them. But who are the Patidars? How do they figure in the Gujarat election calculus?
CHENNAI: Late Sunday night, Narendra Patel, a Patidar leader, held a surprise press conference. Amid high drama reminiscent of O Panneerselvam's press conference in front of the Jayalalithaa memorial in Chennai, Patel waved wads of cash at TV cameras and alleged that the BJP had offered him Rs 1 crore to join the party.
Soon enough, a young BJP Patel leader from Surat, Nikhil Sawani, announced that his 'conscience' has been 'stricken' and that he would quit the party. "Narendra Patel comes from a small family but he still didn't fall for the Rs 1 crore. I wasn't offered money to join the BJP but I have resigned because they are offering lollipops to bribe us."
The BJP refuted the allegations and claimed that it was a drama enacted scripted by the Congress. Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact is that the Patels, or more accurately the Patidar community, will have a huge influence on the upcoming Gujarat election.
So, who are the Patidars?
The Patidars are a dominant caste in Gujarat. They comprise only about 12.3 per cent of the state's population. But they exert a disproportionate influence on Gujarat elections by virtue of their socio-economic status — much like the Marathas in Maharashtra. The Patidars are predominantly affluent. Of the 117 BJP MLAs in the Gujarat Assembly, 37 are Patels. Their grip on the state's political scenario comes from their hold on Gujarat's manufacturing sector.
However, experts say only 20 per cent of the Patidar population can be considered prosperous. Like the Sikh agitation in the 1980s, which assumed a religious colour, the Patidar agitation stems from the lack of jobs opportunities for the community's youngsters and a stressed local economy.
What do the Patidars want?
In 1985, the Patidars launched a movement against reservation for the OBCs. This led to widespread conflict which claimed the lives of 100 people. In exactly thirty years, social dynamics in Gujarat seem to have gone back to square one.
Since those years, Gujarat has been through a variety of problems. Sebastian Morris, a professor at Indian Institute of Managment Ahmedabad, explains this in terms of the economic slowdown in Gujarat relative to the country's economic growth. Between 1997 and 2002, for instance, Gujarat's growth rate was slower than the national average, slightly lower than 3 per cent. In 2002, the state even flirted with negative growth. The Patidars, in particular, faced a crisis that was common to dominant farming communities across the country. Their farms shrunk and they were forced to move to the cities.
The discontent built up until 2015, when thousands of Patidar youngsters, crippled by the lack of jobs and a slow urban economy, hit the road in Mehsana demanding OBC status for their community, which would entitle Patidars to reservation in government jobs and education. The agitation found immediate resonance in the community and has been simmering ever since. The 2017 election is seen in the community as an opportunity to make their voice heard.
Who is Hardik Patel?
Hardik Patel is a 22-year-old newcomer to politics. In July 2015, his sister, Monica, failed to qualify for a state government scholarship and her friend from an OBC caste got the scholarship despite scoring lower marks. Although it may not have been the only trigger, Hardik formed the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) and launched an agitation for the inclusion of his community among social groups entitled to reservation.
Hardik's oratorical skills and firebrand image captured the imagination of Patidar youngsters across Gujarat and the localised demonstrations soon turned into a full-blown agitation involving thousands of youngsters. The agitators hoped that the BJP government then headed by a fellow Patidar — Anandiben Patel — would heed to their demands. However, it was not to be. In August 2015, a massive rally called by Hardik Patel in Ahmedabad led to a violent police crackdown on Patidar neighbourhoods and on PAAS members.
Whom do the Patidar support?
Since then, Hardik Patel and the Patidars have been actively campaigning against the BJP. This does not automatically mean that the Patidars are pro-Congress. Hardik Patel said his movement was apolitical and that it's only aimed at the betterment of his community.
But obviously, the BJP and Congress would like to make Patidar anger work for them. In the 1980s, when the Congress was in power in Gujarat, the Patidars were neutral towards the party. However, that changed with the anti-OBC agitation which alienated the community from the Congress. The Patels shifted their allegiance to the BJP and helped the party gain power in the state. Now the Congress sees an opportunity to turn the influential community against the BJP.
With just a few weeks to go to the polls, the Patidars seem to have emerged as the tipping factors in the electoral see-saw of Gujarat.