Patidar reservation agitation: ‘All izz not well’ in Gujarat

Hardik Patel’s agitation is a result of the damage done to the state by crony capitalism

Himanshu Upadhyaya Bengaluru 

Several decades ago, a Patidar from central Gujarat conceived a formidable Opposition party to end the Congress’ continual dominance in the post-Independence bilingual state. He represents an early example of how a farmer’s son could excel in higher education, secure an enviable position in engineering services in British India, be inspired by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s ideas of rural development and become the motivating force behind an organisation that went on to establish a well-known university to keep alive the memory of Patel. Yes, even as Patels agitate to demand reservation in education and government jobs, I am reminded of Bhailal Patel. 

Bhaikaka must have striven really hard to build a political party with a dream to establish an alliance between farmers and labourers – his party was called, after all, the Kisan Mazdoor Lok Paksh – and yet, how did cartoonists of those foregone years respond to the electoral defeat of his party? They read the acronym of the party as if it was a question in Sanskrit, “kim lop”, meaning literally, “oh, where did it disappear?” However, Bhaikaka didn’t accept that election as marking the end of his political career; he went on to bring Rajaji’s Swatantra Party to Gujarat. 

In August, a mobilisation led by a 22-year-old youth galvanised the community and refuses to die down. As I write, news trickles in that the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti is planning a march from Dandi to Sabarmati Ashram, and Hardik Patel has started to visit and address gatherings outside Gujarat while, taking a cue from the Patels, even Brahmins are taking out protest marches demanding reservation. So, what does all this mean for Modi’s Gujarat that didn’t tire of embracing the 3 Idiots message: “If your inner voice puzzles you a lot, just put a hand over the heart and tell it: Hey, all izz well.”  What are the fissures within the development model that has created its curious discontent?

Growing up amongst friends who used the surname of Patel and dropped family names such as Kanani, Ramani, Jayani, Dhorajiya and so on, I distinctly remember the years when the Patels in Gujarat started to build a grand cohesion at community level. Despite some references to how, during electoral mobilisation, whether someone was a Leuva or Kadwa made all the difference, we need to see how the community has shown a great internal cohesion and mobilisation. Amongst Patels, there exists quite a stratification – at present there are already two sub-groups of the Patidar community within the OBC list in Gujarat – and what has balanced these disparities in economic status is a formula known as P4P. This is shorthand suggesting that a Patel would prefer to hire another Patel.

However, in real terms such a formula can work only in private establishments and there too in certain restricted ways only. The Patels have also shown a liking for community-oriented social work. Examples that immediately come to mind are the practice of organising hundreds, even thousands, of marriages on one stage, establishing educational institutes and constructing Swaminarayan temples.

In the 1980s, the Patels, along with other elite groups such as the Brahmins and Banias, hit the streets to oppose reservation policies under Bakshi Panch. It is anyone’s guess on whose side the Patels would be seen during those Mandal-Kamandal years. 

However, if we wish to make sense of this mobilisation, we need to understand the fragility of a façade called ‘Development and Good Governance’ in the Modi era that has made a majority of Gujaratis sing that 3 Idiots song and take to the dance floor. In December 1999, when a fledgling Keshubhai Patel government was in charge of Gujarat, as a postgraduate student I used to read Gujarati newspapers and had seen the first flashpoint of agrarian distress of a different kind. Farmers from a village in Saurashtra had blocked a road to protest against irrigation water being allocated for industrial use and being taken through a pipeline to the district headquarters. This was not a stray incident and if you sift through the archives of Down to Earth magazine, you will learn that it did not go un-commented upon by then editor Anil Agarwal, who during that year had started to take a deep interest in the emergence of the rainwater harvesting movement in Saurashtra. Keshubhai had started to talk about the Narmada Dam and Kalpsar. 

Today, witnessing the angry young man-style politics of Hardik Patel, we must wonder why the song “All Izz Well” was not interrupted by shouting from the floor, even as Narendrabhai’s government was busy allocating a higher share of Narmada water to industry. We must revisit those days when the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh – and certain Patel leaders of this RSS affiliate – had launched a protest against the hike of power tariff for agricultural pumps and a chief minister did not reconsider decisions. We must keep in mind that the grand game of ‘manufacturing consent’ and deflating intellectual criticism by labelling it ‘anti-Gujarat’ was converted into an art by the late Chimanbhai Patel. In the past 12 years, this art was taken to further heights by Narendrabhai and all his men who sang along. 

However, now that Narendrabhai is in the national capital and ‘all must be well’ in his Gujarat, suddenly there is a bitter realisation that the crony capitalism that was being advertised as development has killed livelihoods and failed to generate jobs. The diamond industry – in which the Patels have high stakes both as employers and workers – is witnessing a slump and the real estate business is resulting in blocked investments. The reverse exodus to Saurashtra’s agricultural farms is not going to be a feasible option. Actually, the credit for saving agriculture from complete collapse goes to organisations such as the Saurashtra Jaldhara Trust and the Vruksha Prem Seva Trust, both headed by enlightened leaders from the Patel community, rather than to government policies.

The current mobilisation might shout for reservation, but in doing so it articulates a walkout from the dance floor that asks unemployed youth to shout endlessly: “All izz well”!   

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2015