A 22 year old show stopper
Young Hardik Patel appeared from nowhere on the national horizon, galvanised his rich community, sought socio-economic inclusion and had the Prime Minister of India sit up and take note. Not just that, he called into question the much touted Gujarat model of development. Watch this space
It is not normal for a prime minister to break from routine and make a video appeal for peace all because some caste group demonstrators turned violent in a state. And, when a Narendra Modi does that, it must be something special or extraordinary because he is not known to make such appeals even when everybody is hoping he would in circumstances worse than this. That is just an indicator of the importance that an agitation led by a 22 year old has made on the country and the powers-that-be.
It was quite unusual to see the young Hardik Patel addressing a huge rally at Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat, the home state of the Prime Minister. It is not uncommon to see mass rallies of hundreds or thousands of people in a country like India. On certain occasions, it is not uncommon to find those thousands turning into millions or, as in this case, close to half a million people. Hardik appeared from nowhere on the national horizon and left none in doubt that his socially, politically, and economically powerful community of Patels was, practically, eating out of his hands.
Indeed, the appeal by the Prime Minister for peace came soon after the participants at the rally turned violent when the little over two decades old Hardik Patel was arrested by the police briefly before being hurriedly released. Hardik’s demand for his community of Patels or Patidars as they are also called, is that the policy of reservation/affirmation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) should also be extended to the Patel community. His argument was simple. Either give his community of Patels reservation along with the OBCs or get rid of the reservation policy altogether.
The demand from such a community dismayed many. The Patels or the Patidars is a community which has been a forward caste group and politically very powerful. If the representatives of the community, spread across all political parties, make up their mind and resign from their membership, the Gujarat legislative assembly would be as good as defunct. There is no field that does not have a representative of the Patel community. Not just in India but the world over. The community, perhaps, is the largest caste group apart from the Reddys hailing from the erstwhile united southern state of Andhra Pradesh, even among the non-resident Indians or people of Indian origin abroad.
Going by Hardik’s line of argument, it is a case of members of his community performing well in education but being denied admission to, for instance, professional courses, because the OBCs beat them to it with even lesser percentage of marks. This argument gets extended to cover even employment opportunities in the government sector. Why the government sector when there is a scaling down in recruitment is a different issue. But, his demand is not very different from what was advanced in the early 80’s. At that time it was aimed at the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who have an affirmation policy guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. Today, it is aimed at the backward classes. The demand, primarily, raises several questions.
The first one is the ‘Gujarat model of development’ that became the pivot on which the enigma called Modi graduated from being chief minister to Prime Minister. It was even argued, at one point of time, that the model could be replicated across the country. But, this agitation appears to have exemplified the argument of many that the reality was different. In layman’s terms, it means that the community graduated from being only the landed gentry to setting up small and medium enterprises or SMEs. But, the new model of development promoted by the then chief minister led to establishment of larger industrial units which did not provide the employment breaks that were expected by the dominant caste group.
In fact, going by the way Hardik has been replying to questions in the media, it appears his demand for inclusiveness on the reservation bandwagon appears to be less than the demand for abolition of reservation policy. And, this is where the politics of reservation comes into sharper focus. There are many caste groups which have been demanding reservation and, it appears, he wants the others to agree with him on abolition of such a policy. How many agree with him will, perhaps, take some time to clarify. But, the fact is that such a move would lead to consolidation of the OBCs which are currently enjoying the fruits of reservation in education and employment.
This section would certainly await a judgment of the Supreme Court on the route the southern state of Tamil Nadu took for affirmative action some two decades ago. The state had simply passed legislation in its legislative assembly under a schedule in the Constitution that keeps reservation policy outside judicial review. This was to ensure a reservation policy covering 69 per cent of the population and to avoid the Supreme Court-laid down norm of only 50 per cent. The apex court has asked for substantive data on each backward class before hearing the case further.
Hardik may come across to many as sometimes immature or illogical. It’s perhaps a function of his age as well. But the dust he has raised will take time to settle down. There could be a demand for applying the economic criteria for affirmative action. Either way, one thing is certain. That this could lead the way to a seed sprouting over the next three to four years and that’s the time when this issue will become critically important for the political class. That will be the time when the people will be reviewing closely the report card of Modi just before the next general elections.
This is one reason why many are beginning to believe that the sudden emergence of Hardik and the quiet manner in which half a million people were organised could not have been done without the backing of some forces from within the Hindutva organisations who are opposed to Modi.
That is the challenge that is posed by this agitation to India’s only second Prime Minister hailing from the backward classes. Before anyone rushes shout ‘factual error’, it would be appropriate to clarify that H D Deve Gowda was the first backward classes Prime Minister India had in the mid-90’s. In the southern state of Karnataka, where he hails from, he belongs to an upper caste but as per a federal Mandal Commission, he is a backward class. It is that complicated a pandora’s box that Hardik Patel or the forces behind him have unlocked. In a way, it is the box of aspirations. And, it all boils down to management of political economy.
This is how complex a picture of relationships that India is glued to from the time the alleged murder of Sheena Bora came to light last week. The saddest part of this story has been as to why none of those close to her wondered aloud about her whereabouts for three years. In an era when communication across the world has reached an amazing level, none tried to contact her in the US when her mother, Indrani Mukerjea, allegedly claimed that she was there all this while.