Cracks in the model

Print edition : October 02, 2015

Hardik Patel addressing the "Kranti rally" in Ahmedabad on August 25. Photo: Vijay Soneji

A view of the rally. Some five lakh people attended it. Photo: SAM PANTHAKY/AFP

Buses set on fire in Surat after the arrest of Hardik Patel on August 25. Photo: PTI

Patels’ agitation for reservation shows up the flaws of the Gujarat model of development, but the community is unlikely to dump the BJP.

In a massive and unprecedented show of strength, close to five lakh people from the economically and socially dominant Patel community gathered in Ahmedabad on August 25 to demand reservation in government educational institutions and jobs. The Patidars, as Patels are otherwise called, came from across Gujarat to demand that either the Other Backward Class (OBC) quota should be extended to them or the caste-based reservation should be abolished altogether.

The protest gained momentum in other parts of the State, with large demonstrations taking place in Surat in southern Gujarat, Morbi in the west and in some parts of northern Gujarat. From the scale of popular mobilisation in the rallies, it began to emerge that the protests were not just about reservation but reflected a deeper discontent among Gujarat’s most dominant community. Frustrations that had been simmering were now coming to the surface.

Socio-economic analysts and observers of Gujarat politics say the protests were anti-reservation in their core. The Patel community feels threatened by other sections that it perceives to have advanced economically and socially. The agitation is also seen to have exposed the hollowness of Gujarat’s social and economic policies and its flawed development model. Patels, who are the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) backbone in Gujarat, have borne the brunt of this failure and clearly there is disappointment all around.

“There are lakhs of Patels who are economically backward. Our demand is not caste-based. We want a quota for the EBC—economically backward classes,” said Amrish Patel, a committee member of the Sardar Patel Group (SPG), which launched the protests. He explained that though the community was perceived as being wealthy, it had a large percentage that was struggling because of the agrarian crisis and lack of employment in the corporate and industrial sectors.

The August 25 Kranti rally, led by 21-year-old Hardik Patel, convener of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), who was practically unknown before it, started on a peaceful note. But the gathering took an ugly turn when Hardik Patel was arrested for the threat that he posed to law and order. Angry crowds burnt buses and vandalised public property. A young man was killed and several people were injured in the police lathicharge that followed. Gujarat came to a standstill and all major cities shut down for a few days following the rally. The State government tried to prevent further violence by getting mobile phone service providers to block SMS and Internet access, leading to the blocking of social media and WhatsApp for an entire week.

What was the trigger for the agitation? And, why now? Ketan Patel, who owns an automobile dealership in Ahmedabad, said: “Admissions to professional colleges have been going on, and many of our young people have achieved reasonably good marks in the examinations. Yet they don’t get seats because of the reserved quota. Youngsters from the OBC and other castes who have poorer results are walking into professional colleges. I believe a member of Hardik Patel’s family suffered this discrimination, and that prompted him to start the agitation. But we have been discussing this situation for many months now, that is why it was easy to get so many people to come. We have also been asking for jobs in the government—there are over 7,000 vacancies across departments.”

Mona Mehta, an assistant professor of political science at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, said: “Why are they [Patels] suddenly seeking government jobs and reservation in education? This community has never looked at this sector in the past. There is a sort of desperation to achieve economic mobility in keeping with rising aspirations, which the economy is not able to fulfil. It is in this context that the stability of government jobs appears attractive to many Patidar youths.”

This kind of mobilisation could not have taken place overnight. Mona Mehta said that it was the culmination of weeks of planning, adding that Patel organisations were known to have been galvanising support since the middle of July.

The writer and columnist Aakar Patel, who has written extensively on Gujarat, also commented on the scale of the popular mobilisation: “It is a very unified community in a State with a pretty modern economy but where identity is still caste-based, even in the cities. The idea of 6-Village and 5-Village Patidar clans runs strong. Secondly, they have had a long history of political mobilisation under the Congress. And lastly, they have totally dominated politics in the last 20 years and so have a good idea of how to gather numbers.”

Literally translated, Patidar means one who owns a strip of land. Patidars were tenants and tillers of land in the erstwhile princely States in what is now Gujarat. After Independence, the community benefited from land reforms and became owners of vast tracts of prime agricultural land. It was at this time that they took on the anglicised “Patel” as their last name. It is estimated that Patels constitute 15 per cent of Gujarat’s population.

Patels, who claim to be descendents of Rama’s twins, Luv and Kush, are divided into two main sub-castes, Leuva Patels and Kadva Patels. The community is spread across the State, with a higher concentration in northern Gujarat and Saurashtra. There are also Muslim Patels, who are mainly from the trading community. Patels are known to be a closely knit community and often help out less fortunate members of the community.

Patels, a community that has accumulated considerable wealth from agriculture, are also known for their industriousness and business sense. In the 1970s and 1980s, many of them diversified into manufacturing and were successful in building Gujarat’s small- and medium-scale industries. In the colonial period, and once again in the 1980s, many Patels migrated, reaching almost every corner of the globe, making their last name perhaps the most widespread one in the world. Non-resident Patels are best known for owning 70 per cent of the motels in the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s, young people of this highly aspirational community began looking for work in the professional and white-collar sectors. “In fact, they prefer these jobs now to agriculture or business,” said Ketan Patel.

Patel Politics

Achyut Yagnik, who heads the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action in Ahmedabad, said that the current situation should be seen in the context of Gujarat’s political history. “Caste has always remained a pivotal force behind Gujarat politics. Since Sardar Patel was a prominent leader in the freedom struggle, the Patel community was initially aligned with the Congress. Their sheer numbers have made them a crucial vote bank,” he said.

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, Gujarat had two Patel Chief Ministers, Chimanbhai Patel and Babubhai Patel. Chimanbhai Patel, who was known as the creator of modern Gujarat and was the longest serving Chief Minister, ensured that Patels were well entrenched in the State’s politics.

The period 1980-81 was a turning point for Patels and their relationship with the Congress. Madhavsinh Solanki, who belonged to an OBC community and was a chief ministerial aspirant, played up the caste factor and caused a major churn by introducing the KHAM theory (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim). This electoral strategy promised 50 per cent reservation for a bloc comprising OBCs (27 per cent), tribal people (15 per cent), the Scheduled Castes (7 per cent) and the disabled (1 per cent) in government employment and education. Solanki gained politically from this movement and the party led by him won 141 seats in the 1980 Assembly elections.

The irrepressible Patels led two major anti-reservation movements, in 1981 and 1985, which eventually led to the deeply conservative and business-minded community’s identification with the BJP, Hindutva and the right-wing agenda. In 1995, Keshubhai Patel led the BJP to victory in the State. Patels have since been singularly responsible for keeping the BJP in power in Gujarat.

“Patels are actually Krishna-worshippers. But they were powerfully attracted to Hindutva and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. This sealed their association with the BJP. This will continue and there is absolutely no reason for them to break with the BJP, which they totally dominate,” said Aakar Patel.

The current Chief Minister is also a Patel. There are six Patels in the Cabinet and another 34 are Members of the Legislative Assembly. “This is a significant number,” Yagnik pointed out. Mona Mehta said: “It is interesting to see the twist in the reservation issue. In three decades, Patels seem to have made an intriguing journey from confident domination to anxious emasculation.”

Hardik Patel

Hardik Patel took advantage of the recent insecurity and discontent in the community to push himself into the limelight, say several commentators. There are conspiracy theories that he is supported by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s detractors. His speech in Hindi at the Kranti rally is seen by some as a move towards national politics. Loaded statements such as “the lotus will not bloom in 2017” indicated an absence of fear in speaking up against the Modi regime.

Hardik Patel may project himself as the face of the movement, but the community is not undivided. Hardik began his activism with the SPG but soon fell out with another leader, Lalji Patel, and formed the PAAS. Although credited with bringing the Patels’ problems to the forefront, he might just remain a political aspirant who is probably cutting his teeth with this movement.

Aakar Patel felt that the agitation he started would peter out. “Hardik doesn’t seem to have thought his strategy through. He went national far too quickly. The problem with the courts and the other dominant peasant castes like Jats was already known. He is poorly advised,” he said.

But what went wrong for this community after decades of economic, social and political domination?

The discontent comes from many angles, according to Yagnik: shortage of jobs, small number of admissions in professional courses, agrarian issues, and a decline in the small- and medium-scale industries brought about by Modi’s Gujarat model of development, which supports big industry.

Over time, landholdings belonging to Patels have contracted in size and the younger generation does not want to be farmers, said Rupesh Patel, who owns a real estate agency in Ahmedabad but also looks after his cotton fields in Saurashtra and is a member of the SPG. Not many Patels own more than 10 bighas (approximately four acres, or 1.6 hectares) of land now. “Besides, the prices our crops fetch hardly cover the cost of farming,” he said.

Gujarat, which is a top cotton-producing State, has been suffering from an agrarian crisis for a few years mainly owing to drought and inadequate minimum support price for cash crops. The Comptroller Auditor General’s (CAG) report released in April 2015 stated that for the first time Gujarat’s GDP (gross domestic product) in agriculture clocked a negative growth (-6.96 per cent) in 2012-13, the first year of the Twelfth Plan.

Patels also control the diamond-polishing and ceramics industries. About 80 per cent of the world’s diamonds are polished in Gujarat, says the Gem and Jewellery Council of India.

According to the Bhavnagar Diamond Association, about 450 small diamond units have shut shop this year. There are unofficial reports that almost 5,000 diamond workers have lost their jobs in Surat, Amreli and Bhavnagar, which are the main centres for polishing.

Morbi in central Gujarat, which produces ceramic tiles and once boasted that it beat China in production and prices, has been severely affected by a ban that prevents the use of cost-effective coal gasifiers. About 25 per cent of this industry has shut down because gas as fuel is economically unviable.

“Its unfortunate to see an enterprising community reduced to this state. The biggest culprit in their downfall has been Gujarat’s thrust towards big industry,” said an investment analyst. “Big industry does not necessarily provide employment.”

He said that the government had attracted huge investments and invited corporate giants such as the Tatas to the State, but that did not translate into more employment. “Over the past 20 years, the annual industrial growth has been 22 per cent, while employment growth has been just 3.5 per cent,” he said. A huge investment of Rs.1.80 lakh crore was made in manufacturing, but it did not create enough jobs. “We are chasing investments without any care for employment.”

Aakar Patel said: “In the 1990s, Gujarat was unable to take advantage of some aspects of liberalisation, particularly the services businesses, because of a lack of English—it is forbidden in government schools until Class V. The services sector is about 13 per cent smaller in Gujarat than the average in India as a share of the total GDP. This has limited social mobility because there are not enough white-collar jobs.”

He added: “It has exposed the nature of the model. Gujarat has always been focussed on manufacturing as its engine for growth. This is a historical phenomenon. But it accelerated under Modi. It was sold as the ideal way in which to do ‘development’, but it has its limitations, and these have been exposed very cruelly.”


“Patels are completely committed to Hindutva. They will not leave the BJP,” said Mona Mehta. “In any case, the Congress is almost a non-entity in Gujarat. They didn’t even capitalise on the Patel issue. This is a hegemonic BJP State. What the Patels are saying is that, we got you here, you are in power, now listen to us.”

Patels have total power over the Gujarat government and will not jeopardise that because of their angry youth. They remain greatly attracted to the Bharatiya Janata Party and will neither shift to the Congress nor break away in any serious way, said Aakar Patel.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor