Come October, Gujarat will witness polls to six municipal corporations (including that of Ahmedabad), 253 municipalities, 208 taluka panchayats and 26 district panchayats. The catch is that the seemingly invincible ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the government led by Chief Minister Anandiben Patel appear to be facing a major challenge.
The challenge comes from none other than the state's arguably most economically and politically influential community, the Patidars (Patel). Led mostly by its youth, the community has been demanding the other backward class (OBC) status that would give its members quotas in college admission and government jobs.
What began in July this year as stray rallies has gradually turned into a mass movement, with thousands turning up for the Patidars' rallies in various parts of the state. Led by two major groups - the Sardar Patel Group (SPG) and Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) - the community held a huge rally in Surat with the attendance of more than 450,000 members.
The government tried to remain mum on their demands, but had to take note when one of the rallies at Visnagar in Mehsana in July turned violent, followed by another in Vijapur, again in Mehsana, where the police booked 152 members of the Patidar community for violating prohibitory orders. The law and order machinery is now on tenterhooks about another mega rally to be held in Ahmedabad on August 25.
What could actually spell trouble for the government is the community members' threat of either boycotting the local body elections or voting against the ruling party. Their threat carries some weight as the Patidars make up 20 per cent of Gujarat's population and have been the BJP's backbone in the state since the 1980s. From industrialists to politicians, the community has representatives across almost all sections of society. Apart from the chief minister and the state BJP president R C Faldu, 37 MLAs and six ministers belong to the Patidar community.
Originally, landowners who benefited from the post-Independence land reforms, the Patidars increased their wealth by cultivating the right kind of cash crops, especially in north Gujarat, Saurashtra and south Gujarat. Their growing affluence led them to diversify into industrial units, says Achyut Yagnik, an Ahmedabad-based social scientist and founder-secretary of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action,
"From the pre- and post-Independence eras till the 1980s, the Patidars rose on the socio-political ladder in Gujarat under the Congress," Yagnik says. "However in the 1980s, when the Congress leadership led by Madhavsinh Solanki propounded the Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi (tribal) and Muslim (KHAM) theory, the Patidars realised they stood to lose political and social power and looked for an alternative in the BJP. This explains the rise of the BJP and by 1990, Patidars became the backbone of the party, with at least two chief ministers from the Patidar community."
Solanki believed that if the four communities forming KHAM voted for the Congress, the party would never lose power in Gujarat.
The propagation of KHAM theory also led the Patidars to align with the Brahmins to hold anti-reservation agitations in the 1980s. As chief minister in 1973, Solanki had appointed a three-member commission to recommend communities for Gujarat's OBC list. In 1976, the commission in its report recognised 82 communities as OBCs; in 1981, the state government announced a 10 per cent quota for OBCs. Gujarat now has more than 140 notified OBCs, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Ghanchi community.
Experts cite Gujarat's flawed growth story as one of the reasons for the Patidars to seek reservation. "Gujarat' story has been that of jobless growth," says Sunil Parekh, strategic advisor to corporate houses such as Cadila Healthcare and Jubilant Group. "This means getting an education has become a problem. The youth, especially those from the Patidar community, want jobs but they want to get these through education. They don't want to confine themselves to agriculture and since there are not enough jobs in industry, they are left with the service sector where jobs are based on education. Good quality service industry sectors such as information technology offer jobs on the basis of education. They see an opportunity there, but are facing a problem in getting education."
Lately, the state government has been reaching out to the agitating community leaders. For the first time during the ongoing stir, the government held talks with Patidar and Brahma Samaj leaders, most recently in state capital Gandhinagar. A sub-committee set up by the chief minister and led by the state government's spokesperson and Health Minister Nitin Patel on Monday met 11 leaders of the SPG, along with other community leaders.
Nitin Patel said the government had taken note of their demands and would study the issue further. "The government is with all communities and we will do the best we can," he said. "We have held talks with three communities today. It is not appropriate to expect results at the very first meeting. We will continue to hold talks with all communities and take a decision, keeping in mind everyone's welfare." SPG leaders said the talks were inconclusive and that their expectations of a clear stand from the government were not met.
"It will not be easy for the Patidars to get quotas," a senior state government official said on condition of anonymity. "Gujarat has an OBC panel which any community has to approach first and apply for status, along with material to back up their claims. The panel would order a census of the community and check their social and educational status, along with literacy levels, especially among women. If it fits the criteria, the panel would recommend OBC status for it, followed by a government notification on the same."