Gujarat elections: Why anger of Patidars, led by Hardik Patel, is palpable
Patidars or Patels who claim themselves descendants of Lord Rama are demanding OBC status.
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For Munna Kumar, fixing flat tyres is "business", and it has been severely hit by the roll-out of Goods and Services Tax (GST).
“I came from Bihar to earn some money but the new tax just ruined my business, I am even not able to pay rent of this shop," Kumar complained.
His rented shop faces a make-shift BJP camp (tent) in Surat where a few BJP supporters are talking about a massive rally coming their way.
It’s lagan (wedding) season across Gujarat and Surat is not untouched by it. But on a Sunday morning (December 3), the roads in Surat are clogged because of Hardik Patel’s road show. Thousands of supporters in bright yellow caps, in motorbikes, cars, tempos descend, shouting slogans of “Jai Sardar, Jai Patidar”.
The Katargam Road from where Hardik Patel starts his road show is a suburb in Surat. Clean roads, under-construction buildings, fancy shops with signboards in Gujarati speak of the city, which is famous for its diamond industry worldwide. However, not everything appears to be glittery here.
Surrounded by Y-category security, as the 23-year-old's motorcade moves forward, some ethusiastic supporters start chanting slogans of "Modi tera baap aaya" and "Sardar lade the Goron se, Ham ladenge Choron se".
Image: PTI photo
Carrying blue and red flags and singing Gujarati songs praising Patels, the rally ends at Yogi Chowk, where more than 50,000 supporters have gathered to listen to their young leader. At the same time, some 32,000 people watching him live on Facebook.
According to 22-year-old Prakat Patel, one among the crowd, there's a reason behind continuing the road show till late night.
“Some of the textile and diamond industry owners, who are supporting the BJP, asked their workers to work even today so that they can’t attend our rally. That is why they are joining us now."
The Patidar rally has a crowd of largely young men, wearing flashy gold chains and carrying iphones. Adamant to teach the BJP a lesson in the Assembly elections, Hardik's road show begins early morning. While he speaks and waves at the crowds, women and children watch him from their balconies. Young supporters from PAAS (Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti) continuously update pictures and videos from the rally on social media, the "hashtags" further strengthening the deepening sense of caste divide.
In a bright yellow cap and a white T-shirt with images of Bhagat Singh, Sardar Patel and Maharana Pratap (role models followed by Hardik Patel), Harish came from Amroli, 12km from Surat, to attend Hardik’s rally.
He is associated with the embroidery business. He says the two things that changed his life for worse were demonetisation and GST. That was enough to explain his disappointment with the BJP.
"Modi is a liar. See, wherever he goes he claims he belongs to that place,” Harish exclaims as a small crowd surrounding him bursts into laughter.
Going by the on-ground sentiments, professor Gaurang Jani of Department of Sociology, Gujarat University, thinks it’s the first time Modi has been "questioned" in Gujarat.
“First time in Gujarat, people are mimicking Narendra Modi on social media. A number of people in the past were mesmerised, or controlled by the Modi. But now, in my opinion, it’s a non-violent protest by the Gujarati people."
Patidars or Patels who claim themselves descendants of lord Rama are demanding OBC status.
In 1985, however, the Patels, comprising almost 16 per cent of Gujarat’s population, protested against reservation for the OBCs. This led to widespread violence, which claimed the lives of around 100 people. Three decades later, politics over OBC reservation in Gujarat seems to have gone back to how it began, albeit in a different way.
Since Hardik’s "movement" in 2015, the split within Patel community in Gujarat is wide open. Those who are against reservation for Patels support the BJP’s model of "development" and argue if Congress comes to power in Gujarat, the BJP government at the Centre will stop supporting the state.
A few kilometres away from the rally, at Choriyasi, 27-year-old Sanket Patel who works in the diamond industry doesn’t agree with Hardik Patel.
“I as a Patel don’t support the reservation at all and RSS has a strong local network. The BJP is again coming on power," he says in an assured voice.
Jiten Bhai, a 60-year-old auto driver who belongs to Mehsana, is a staunch BJP supporter. He never voted for any other political party in his life. For him it’s a "vichitra" election as the vertical divide between the Patels is wide open.
“Gujaratis are confused between the mother and the aunt,” he says with a broad smile. He later adds with a sly smile that by mother, he meant the BJP.
But Pradip Patel, a software engineering student from Sarvajanik College of Engineering and Technology, Surat, is visibly disappointed with corruption in the education sector and wants to vote the BJP out.
“We supported the BJP in 2012, but Modi stopped listening to the common people of Gujarat. There are a lot of problems in his Gujarat model.”
And it's the youth, like Pradip, who Hardik considers as his main strength.
“The BJP is lying and trying to fool us. When we asked for reservation, they lathi-charged us, fired on us, hit our boys. Farmers are not getting right price for their crops," a visibly angry Hardik tells me later during an interview.
“One can see the Gujarat model only in Ahmedabad and Surat, and nowhere else," he added.
The Patidars - those who own a strip of land - have been the most productive farmers in the medieval period. They were hired by the princely state as the best tenants for the big land. After India attained freedom, they got land ownership rights that made them landlords.
Swathes of land and huge agricultural turnover made a large number of Patidars take a plunge into other business ventures in India and abroad. In fact, Patels own almost a quarter of US motels. Patels who reside in cities are well off and are counted among prominent members, unlike their rural counterparts, in the Gujarati community.
As villages are turning into cities making agriculture an unprofitable profession, Patidars now want government jobs in cities.
“Now each young man wants a government job in Gujarat. Initially, Patels and others were hopeful that multi-national companies will come here and provide them jobs, but that dream has been shattered," says professor Jani.
In the last Assembly, there were 53 MLAs in Gujarat from the Patel community. The Patel community realised their strength and raised their voice for reservation.
In 2015, during such a protest for reservation, 14 Patels died in police firing which became a triggering point against the state government.
Surat is home to around 65,000 traders, mostly Patidars. Almost 5 lakh people are directly and more than 20 lakh people, including 2 lakh women, are indirectly associated with various businesses in Surat.
The annual turnover of the textile industry is around Rs 400 crore. The traders have been supporting the BJP for a long time now. But the mood seems to be changing.
“Almost five lakh people lost their jobs and around 89,000 weaving machines turned into junk in Surat after the GST rollout," says Champalal Bothra, general secretary of Federation of Surat Textiles Traders' Association (FOSTTA), which represents 165 textile centres in the city.
“Demonetisation and GST has hit hard the small business units. The credit system which is the backbone of the industry got affected, and the purchasing power of people has turned zero. As there was no demand, the business turned 50 per cent down.”
As a result, various protest rallies hit the roads. The traders sat on a 22-day strike in July, protest marches swamped the city. They refused to celebrate Diwali and marked the day as "black festival".
Jaisukh Gajera of Ratna Kalakar Sangh, Surat, represents workers from the diamond industry.
According to him, because of the complicated and lengthy GST procedure, the production in diamond industry will be slow this year.
“Around four-six months during the time of demonetisation unemployment rate increased, small units were severely hit during that time," he adds.
Results in five of Surat district’s 12 Assembly seats can be influenced by the textile traders. In the 2012 elections, the BJP won all 12 seats. The presence of disgruntled traders and young Patidars at Yogi Chowk may give the BJP a jolt this time.
Renowned political psephologist Yogendra Yadav believes that there is a real possibility of a change in Gujarat this time.
“I dare to say BJP might lose this election. They haven’t lost a single election in the past 22 years, so if that happens, it would be nothing short of a political earthquake. But it’s possible.”
Coming back to Munna Kumar's shop, where he's busy fixing the third hole of a flattened tube, the owner, a young Patidar asked the price of the new tube. "Rs 300," Munna replied. Then without looking at him, said, “The tube has now too many holes, maybe it’s time to change it.”