The many dangers of Hardik Patel's caste politics

Shweta Punj
Shweta PunjDec 20, 2017 | 18:38

The many dangers of Hardik Patel's caste politics

India’s favourite political story from the Gujarat elections is clearly the young Hardik Patel. The fiery 24-year-old who has fashioned himself as the new-age Bhagat Singh. A nobody who took on the Goliaths of Indian politics and made them sweat for what, until a few years ago, was theirs for taking. 

A game-changer, who in many ways redefined the politics of Gujarat for better or for worse. He is evidently charismatic enough to sustain an agitation for over two years based on a fundamentally flawed premise. He drew immense crowds during his campaign, was insanely brave to take on the "shah" of Indian politics - he was famously quoted to have called the BJP electoral supremo "Gujarat ka goonda".

But let’s move beyond the rhetoric of electioneering to look at what forms the basis of Hardik’s politics.


In July 2015, Patel’s sister failed to qualify for a state scholarship which became the genesis of the Patidar agitation. People of the Patidar community held agitations across the state demanding an OBC - Other Backward Caste - status. Historically, the Patidars were the account keepers for the farmers, they functioned as the link between the king and farmers - whatever the farmer had to pay to the king would be deposited with the village Patidar. So, effectively the Patidar was an operational head of the village. And over the course of time, the Patidars switched their last name to Patel.

Patidar-Patels have emerged as one of the most prosperous and popular communities across the world. The community has given a slew of business and political leaders to India and across the world.  One of India’s most influential politicians, the only one with complete access to the most-revered political family of India, the Gandhis, is Ahmed Patel, a Congress leader. Gujarat has seen a slew of chief ministers who have been Patels - from Anandiben Patel to Chimanbhai Patel, Babubhai Jashbhai Patel, Keshubhai Patel. Patels own nearly a quarter of all motels in the United States of America.

A host of big businesses in India are owned by the Patels - The Suzlon group, Lincoln pharmaceuticals, Nirma, Cadila Healthcare. From stores in the United Kingdom to trading in Africa - Patels  have been the key drivers of expanding India’s cultural and economic footprint across the world.

So, when a Hardik Patel raises a rabble on reservation for one of the most prosperous communities in the world - it portends a dangerous trend. Caste-based reservations have long been part of Indian policy, as an affirmative action to bring the underserved communities at par. In India, for instance, reservation policy has been expanded to include backward classes and that has been a cause of much heartburn.

There are quotas in education and government - since 1950 - 22.5 per cent of university places and government jobs have been reserved for Dalits and tribal people. Since 1993, 27 per cent of government jobs have been reserved for members of the Other Backward Classes - castes only slightly higher up in the Hindu hierarchy.

Politicians have intermittently fuelled this caste-based reservation rhetoric. Former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, batted for 30 per cent reservations in the private sector for Dalits, members of the OBCs and Muslim poor. The industry obviously resisted this impingement on its authority to hire on the basis of competence and not caste and introduced "Dalit-friendly" measures such as the Confederation of Indian Industry introduced a scholarship for bright low-caste students. 

Caste-based reservations has long moved beyond an economic tool to a political one. Sops for different castes are a vote-garnering tool. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, 69 per cent of government jobs and educational positions are reserved for a range of deprived and disadvantaged castes. In fact, the state has a thriving industry for handing out fake caste certificates.

So, if anything, Hardik’s agitation and those supporting it - Congress party worked out a caste reservation formula supporting his demand - is a retrograde step for the polity and economy of the country. India needs to desperately re-look its caste-based reservation policy and tune it to the current dynamics. Because if a Patel can ask for a reservation and succeed, what’s stopping a Brahmin?

For India to truly progress, it needs to rise above caste and religion.

Last updated: December 20, 2017 | 18:38
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