Revolt of the Patels: Caste in the Modi illusion

Updated 07 Sep 2015


The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.

When a 22-year-old clone of Prime Minister Narendra Modi took Ahmedabad by storm on Aug 25 with his fiery rhetoric and an impressive ability to pull in massive crowds that rivalled the Gujarat strongman’s best performance, it was a moment of shock and awe for the ruling BJP and its ultimate leader. As Hardik Patel, given to posing with a gun in hand or brandishing a sword on the dais, had much of India riveted as he rallied half a million members of his community in a show of strength, the incongruities were hard to ignore.

Hardik Patel, travelling across the country to form caste alliances while openly taunting Modi, is demanding quotas for his affluent Patel community in university admission and government jobs, an affirmative action that is reserved for the socially and economically deprived lower castes. The sharper irony is that the Patels, the biggest beneficiaries of Modi’s business-friendly policies, are now turning on a party that they brought to power in the 1990s, partly by opposing the very same caste reservations it is now brazenly seeking for itself.

For many liberal critics who have been railing against the hollowness of Modi’s policies for long, Hardik Patel is a welcome entrant to the political theatre despite the unease caused by his extreme right-wing worldview with its markedly communal antipathies. The truth is that his aggressive politics is finally proving to be more effective in unravelling many of the illusions spun by Modi over the dozen odd years that he ran Gujarat while marking out his strategy to capture Delhi. The most alluring of the illusions that he peddled to desperate young people across the country while campaigning as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 parliamentary election was the promise of jobs and growth opportunities to all through the so-called Gujarat model of development.

The revolt of the Patels of Gujarat is turning out to be a reality check for the Modi government.

The revolt of the Patels or Patidars (landholders) of Gujarat is turning out to be the best reality check on this model whose achievements sceptical analysts have hotly contested. The Patels are known for the most part as successful businessmen at home and abroad and for their political clout with more than a third of the lawmakers coming from their community. For such a well-placed community to seek Other Backward Class or OBC status is the strongest rebuff yet to Modi.

The shrinking economy which has led to closure of thousands of small and medium industries coupled with a dropping wage rate could be the underlying reason why the caste cauldron is bubbling again. No state has been as doggedly opposed to reservations as Gujarat, and no community has been as doggedly opposed to reservations as the Patels who were the first to launch a campaign against reservations for the most oppressed and deprived groups such as the Dalits (Untouchables) and Adivasis (tribespeople) and later the OBCs.

When KHAM, a unique alliance of the lower caste Kshatriyas (OBCs), Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims, formed by Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki, proved too strong, the violent protests by the Patels were shrewdly turned into a communal conflict by Hindutva organisations. Solanki, in a recent interview, says that in the 1981 riots when the Patels ran amok attacking Harijans, Indira Gandhi asked him to hold firm and airlifted special police forces from neighbouring states to quell the riots. However in 1985, “I was told by leaders in Delhi that Pakistan will feel Muslims in Gujarat are not safe and might go to the UN”.

That’s how caste politics tends to play out in India, as the brilliant jurist and economist Bhimrao Ambedkar points out. In his seminal 1936 treatise Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar writes: “Hindu society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. Each caste is conscious (only) of its existence. Its survival is the be all and end all of its existence. A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot. On all other occasions each caste endeavours to segregate itself and to distinguish itself from other castes.”

The RSS, from which the BJP draws its philosophy, is opposed to caste quotas, citing the merit argument to say reservations would be unfair to the poor strata of the upper castes. But the BJP, although it has always lashed out at the vote bank politics of the Congress, has been equally cynical in its quota politics. In 2000, Jats in Rajasthan were classified as OBC, a prompt reward for the community’s support to the BJP in the 1999 parliamentary elections. Nor has Modi shied away from using his lower caste origins at the hustings. Modi is a ghanchi, a prosperous merchant class that enjoys a monopoly of the oil trade but given OBC status.

The BJP’s politics and its ingrained communal bias leave the Muslims out of the quota reckoning although the party claims it would favour reservations based on economic criteria. A few months ago in Maharashtra, despite a court order striking down 16pc reservations for the dominant Maratha caste, the BJP government decided to go ahead with it by issuing a new ordinance, while a 5pc educational quota for Muslims upheld by the judges was quietly scrapped.

The communal antigen is always at work. In the same week that Patel stunned the BJP government and its Hindutva cohorts into shocked silence, a carefully nuanced speech by Vice President Hamid Ansari on the need for affirmative action for the neediest of Muslims had the saffron brigade out in full cry. Unbecoming of his office, shrieked a leader of the VHP.

Speaking at the golden jubilee of the Majlis-i-Mushawarat, Ansari had merely cited the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 which had found the average condition of Muslims comparable to or even worse than that of the historically most backward communities, the scheduled castes and tribes. Choosing to term that a communal statement, the VHP declared that it would “push Muslims in dark alleys of dissatisfaction whose consequences will be dangerous”.

Would that imply the Patels once again in full war paint will do no harm?

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2015

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