2017 Gujarat election: Development vs reservation

Patidar movement leader Hardik Patel appears to be a challenge for BJP in Gujarat. Photograph:( Others )

New Delhi, Delhi, India Nov 20, 2017, 05.51 AM (IST) Rajesh Singh

"When I gave the taxi driver at Ahmedabad airport the name of a nondescript hotel as my address, he looked at me pityingly and asked, “Chota-mota dhanda hai (Are you engaged in petty business)? I readily agreed and said I was in the business of journalism and had come to study the election; I had been there in 2012 also. He perked up and in the course of the 40-minute journey assured me that change would happen in Gujarat. “The BJP will be voted out. Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore will ensure that.” 

Across north Gujarat and Saurashtra, the Patidars were backing Hardik Patel’s reservation agenda and would vote against the BJP.
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Is Hardik Patel really a challenge, I asked. Does he command the majority support of the Patidar community, I wondered. The taxi driver responded, “If he were not a challenge, why is the BJP doing so much to discredit him? And why has the party launched a desperate drive to retain the Patel votes?” Across north Gujarat and Saurashtra, he claimed, the Patidars were backing Hardik Patel’s reservation agenda and would vote against the BJP.

I assumed by his stiff defence of the young Patel leader that he was a votary of reservation for the Patidar community in the State. His answer was surprising. “The Patidars don’t deserve reservation. They are financially, educationally and socially well off.” Before I could respond, he added, “You must be amazed. I am backing Hardik Patel because he is today in my community leader Alpesh Thakore’s side."

The Thakores belong to the Other Backward Class (OBC), and the taxi driver was a Thakore. He strongly suggested that I move around extensively in Mehsana, Patan, Sabarkantha and other parts of north Gujarat, and Ahmedabad too. “ You will realise that I am right. The BJP will lose this time. You came five years ago, but things are very different today.” I assured him that I would visit as many of the places he had advised. 

BJP will emerge with a simple majority (100-plus seats) and form the Government yet again.
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But after moving around throughout the day across the length and breadth of Ahmedabad (Thaltej, Vastrapur, Naranpur etc) and in Patan and Mehsana, the impression I had was far from the kind the taxi driver had predicted. The driver represented one kind of extreme outcome which found resonance among a clutch of people on the streets — the BJP’s rout. A few others I spoke to in these towns and adjoining villages presented another extreme — that the ruling party would return to power with even more seats than it had in 2012.

Most of the people with whom I interacted on the subject foresaw a ‘moderate’ outcome. They were agreed on three conclusions. The first is that the Hardik Patel factor has gained some traction for the Congress. The second is that the Patidar leader will cut into the Patel vote-bank of the BJP. The third is that, despite these setbacks, the BJP will emerge with a simple majority (100-plus seats) and form the Government yet again.

What also became evident through my interactions in Ahmedabad, Patan and Mehsana is that, at the ground level the Patidar and the Thakore communities do not see eye to eye. This is easy to understand. The Thakores belonging to the OBC resent the prospect of having to share the quota pie with the dominant Patels. It’s not ideology that binds them together now; the desire to oust the BJP compels them to share the tent.

The turning point for the Patidars, according to a resident of Thaltej locality in Ahmedabad, was the crackdown by the State police on Patidar agitators in August 2015.
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The turning point for the Patidars, according to a resident of Thaltej locality in Ahmedabad, was the crackdown by the State police on Patidar agitators in August 2015. Fourteen people had died in the violence. The subsequent action against Hardik Patel, including his incarceration and banishment from Gujarat for a while, was viewed as a humiliation of a proud community which had stood by the BJP for decades.

Or at least this is how the Patidar community led by Hardik Patel presented it before his people. The sentiment is echoed by Babubhai Patel, an elderly local in Mehsana. “The BJP Government really brutalised the Patidar community through its action. The lathi-charge cannot be forgotten. We would not have turned against the party but for this act of atrocity.”

The Thaltej resident, who belongs to the OBC and did not wish to be named, remarked, “It’s not that the Congress is liked by us. It has been disastrous for Gujarat in the past. But if it can manage Hardik Patel properly, it can gain significantly.” The anti-BJP sentiment, according to him, the taxi driver and a few other spoken to, is such that the voters are willing to ignore the development work BJP regimes have done over the years, and the failures of the Congress too. 

Although Mehsana had been the focal point of the Patidar agitation, opinion there is not overwhelmingly against the BJP
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Was this an all-pervasive mood? Not really. The manager of the hotel I stayed in, and who appeared politically well-informed, smirked at the proposition. “Do not over-estimate Hardik Patel,” he warned. “Because of his youth and enthusiasm and Congress support, he has begun to look larger-than-life. The Patidar outfit he heads is not the only Patel organisation that exists. There are others and those are as important. They are with the BJP. The Patidar votes will split, true, but not to the extent that the divide can harm the ruling party greatly.”

He said that the Patels were an educated lot and socially aware, and they realise that Hardik Patel was leading them up the garden path with his promise of reservation. “How can he ensure his community reservation? The 50 per cent mark is already touched. The Congress’s assurance is only on paper. It cannot be implemented.” This line or reasoning was incidentally shared by several middle-aged and senior citizens.

But everyone is agreed upon the fact that Hardik Patel has taken a big risk and that things can go wrong. If the Congress fails to give the Patidars a credible and actionable plan of action for reservations, for instance. Or, if the Patels, who have been inextricably linked to the BJP for their socio-economic development and who now back Hardik Patel, develop cold feet over the disruption that may happen in case they vote against the BJP, keep themselves away from the polling booth. Or, if the Congress does not give the Hardik Patel-led organisation, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) a fair number of seats to contest. 

The Congress and the Hardik Patel-led Patidars, he said, represented the privileged system, while the BJP under Modi stood for inclusive development.
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There is another danger, which even Hardik Patel’s supporters acknowledge, even if grudgingly: That of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to swing fence-sitting Patidar votes in his party’s favour through a series of aggressive campaigns in the region. A 65-year old voter in Patan town remarked, “Modi sabka magaj ghuma dega (Modi can change people’s minds in his favour), adding, “Also, don’t forget the Gujarati pride (which the Prime Minister symbolises) issue.”

Although Mehsana had been the focal point of the Patidar agitation, opinion there is not overwhelmingly against the BJP — or at least not as decisively as one might have expected. A 25-something (Patel) civil engineer who has ventured into the construction business said that while Hardik Patel was shrewd and manipulative, the BJP led by Modi “can manage things at the last moment”. He supported Hardik Patel’s demand for reservation. “Patidars need quota not so much in Government employment (we Patels either have land or are engaged in business or are salaried employees) but in educational institutions.

Why should we lose out to those who are less merited but get through because of quotas?” On the other hand, a shop-keeper, vociferously supported by a bunch of youngsters around him, bluntly said, “Hardik Patel cannot be trusted. He is neither mature nor responsible.”

The sense of ambivalence that was reflected across Ahmedabad and in Patan and Mehsana towns, was replaced by clarity in the small Pimpal village, situated on the Mehsana-Patan road. Phulabhai Jeevabhai Rabari is a 30-year old who is engaged in the dairy business. The Rabari community belongs to the OBC and is a beneficiary of the quota system.

He made light of the benefit and claimed that it made no difference to youngsters like him. “We live by our skills and hard work. I don’t like the reservation business.” The Congress and the Hardik Patel-led Patidars, he said, represented the privileged system, while the BJP under Modi stood for inclusive development. “The 2017 election is about development versus reservation”, Phulabhai stated. A motley group of villagers seconded the opinion.

Perhaps Phulabhai hit the nail on the head. It does appear that the Assembly poll is just that.