GROUND SHIFTS IN GUJARAT AS CONGRESS OFFERS PATEL QUOTA; GETS HARDIK SUPPORT

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Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel addresses a press conference in Ahmedabad on Nov 22, 2017. IANS photo

“The Congress has accepted our demand for reservations with a formula that provides for benefits equivalent to OBCs constitutionally, without disturbing the present 49 per cent quota for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs,” Patel said.

Abdul Hafiz Lakhani | Caravan Daily

AHMEDABAD — The powerful Patels or Patidar community on whose shoulders the BJP rode through decades in Gujarat has shifted the political and electoral equations in the poll-bound state by throwing its weight behind the Congress Party. With its young and defiant leader, Hardik Patel announcing the community’s support for the Congress after endless suspense, the community’s political preference is now crystal clear.

Hardik Patel, leader of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, said, “I will not join any political party, but I will ask my supporters not to vote for BJP.” This declaration comes as a shot in the arm for the Congress, in their fight for Gujarat. Both PM Modi and BJP party president Shah are fighting to establish their absolute dominance on their home turf, after having tasted 22 years of uninterrupted power. The party is leaving no stones unturned. Modi is visiting Gujarat every week with fresh sops being doled out over dramatic denouncements of the Gandhi family and their “hatred for Gujarat and Gujaratis”.

However, with the Congress accepting Patidars’ demand for reservation, the community has switched its loyalty at a critical juncture. “Congress has agreed to give Patidars reservation under Section 31 and provisions of Section 46,” Patel told journalists on Wednesday. It has agreed to give Other Backward Classes (OBC) equivalent benefits to those not entitled to quotas in jobs and education.

Patel said: “Our primary goal is to get quota for Patidars and to achieve that, we first have to defeat the BJP.”

Who are the Patidars?

They are a dominant caste in Gujarat. Despite comprising only about 12.3 per cent of the state’s population, 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 being doled out 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 100 lives. Exactly thirty years later, the social dynamics of Gujarat seem to have gone back to square one.

Sebastian Morris, a professor at Indian Institute of Managment Ahmedabad, explains this in terms of the economic slowdown that Gujarat is witnessing in comparison 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,” he said.

The discontent built up until 2015, when thousands of Patidar youngsters, crippled by the lack of jobs and a slow urban economy, took on the streets, demanding OBC status for their community, which would entitle Patidars to get reservation in government jobs and education. The agitation found immediate resonance in the community and things have been simmering ever since. The 2017 election is being seen an opportunity to make their voice heard.

Who is Hardik Patel?

Hardik Patel is a 22-year-old newcomer to state politics. It is believed that 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, it eventually led him set up the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) and launch an agitation for the inclusion of his community for reservation.

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