Patel rap

It should be considered, not without a touch of irony, that the challenge to Narendra Modi and Amit Shah comes from their own home state and pocket borough. The chain of events in Gujarat this week suggest that in the emergence of Hardik Patel, those opposed to the prime minister and former Gujarat chief minister, could have found an ideal bedmate. Until two months ago, Hardik Patel, a representative of the state’s influential Patel or patidar agricultural community, who constitute roughly 14 per cent of the state’s population, was hardly a known name. Now suddenly, Delhi’s all-knowing political class has woken up to a 22-year-old rabble-rousing B Com graduate and motivator who is aggressively demanding reservations for Patels in the OBC quota. And he is leaving a trail in its wake. Hardik was member of the Sardar Patel Group (SPG), a leading patidar youth body as president of its Viramgam unit. The country’s first important Gujarati patidar was also its first Union home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, the strongman who literally put India together.

As convenor of the Patidar Anamat Aandolan Samiti (PAAS), set up virtually a few weeks ago in July this year, Hardik has rocked the very foundations of the BJP government there, whose rise to power in Gujarat about a decade-and-a-half ago was primarily seen to be fashioned by the support of the Patels. Led by state chief minister, Anandiben Patel, who has in her 27-member cabinet seven senior Patel ministers, the community contributes five MPs to the Lok Sabha and three-dozen MLAs to the state assembly. For now, however, they have Hardik in their hair. Hardik is trying to tap into a popular patidar grievance, which reflects how skewed the education system and quota reservation raj politics may prove to be in the long run. His community, says Hardik, is losing out in the development sweepstakes because of the prevailing reservation regime.

“A patidar student with 90 per cent marks does not get admission in an MBA course while SC/ST or OBC communities get it with 45 per cent,” he has been quoted as saying. Hardik says he is not opposed to dalits, but it is a political line that has the potential of catching on outside the state as well. Reservation grievances run rampant in the Indian heartland, despite being tempered down by two decades of economic liberalisation and the accompanying employment opportunities; it just needs a little spark to fire. Hardik, who helped his father run a small submersible-pumps business in rural Ahmedabad before his exceptional abilities to interact and communicate catapulted him to the ranks of possibly the youngest politician in the country, also represents the new breed of netas who have little time for niceties. A recent video clip which has gone viral shows a montage of Hardik’s fiery images, including one where he’s holding an assault rifle. In the background, a provocative commentary informs us of the young man’s hidden innate desires and the methods applied to achieve those goals. While Hardik later told reporters he was just jigging to a popular Bollywood song, it’s a video that is unlikely to go down too well with law enforcement authorities.

To an extent, there is the touch of the Great Gatsby about Hardik Patel. No one can quite say with certainity how he has become such a rage in so short a time. For one — and the more important one — is the role of the Congress in getting young Hardik onto centrestage. Long marginalised in the state and now at the Centre, India’s oldest political party is aware that if hindutva has any antidote on a long-term basis, it is Mandal-style caste politics — forward hindu castes vs backward vs dalit vs the rest. It is a political experiment that has worked very well in Gujarat in the 1970s, much before it did in UP and Bihar in the 1980s and 90s. Could Hardik be the Congress’s ace to trump the BJP? We could get answers in the immediate foreseeable future. For another, grainy images of an even younger Hardik with Vishwa Hindu Parishad hardliner Pravin Togadia have surfaced on the social media and the net. There is a suggestion — just a hint — that Hardik may have the tacit backing of those hardliners who feel that Modi has diluted the saffron party’s core hindutva agenda. Either way, the idea of Patels seeking job reservations in this modern era should be, on the face of it, considered paradoxical. The group is more than well represented in Gujarat’s politics, administration and business. They have made a fortune outside the country and according to one recent estimate, comprise the largest Indian diaspora in the US. An estimated 1.7 million Patels in the US run and work in an unending chain of hotels and motels, prompting the nickname ‘Potels.’

That one of their own should seek job reservations under the OBC quota in Gujarat suggests that there is a larger stage being set up. Could Hardik be the harbinger of caste politics, which has been shaded for the last decade or so under growing hindu assertiveness? He has already received support from another OBC leader from far away Bihar, chief minister Nitish Kumar. Or could Hardik just melt away, as a shrewd Narendra Modi appeals for calm in a region where his writ ran unchallenged until a few weeks ago?



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