The Army was called in, paramilitary forces were rushed to the aid of the state government, curfew was declared, internet and mobile services suspended— no not in Jammu and Kashmir but Gujarat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sufficiently unnerved to break his pall of silence and actually urge the people to restore peace.
All this, and more, just because of a 22 year old who has turned into a hero for the Patel community overnight. Many are flocking behind him and his demand for reservations. Within days he has busted the image of Gujarat as the crucible of development, and turned it into a state where the aspirations of even the most influential community in the state are not being met. For long the growth of the Patels was projected as synonymous with the growth of Gujarat, but according to this young man, Hardik Patel, this is not so. And that poverty and lack of opportunity is a real issue even for the Patels, let alone the other less powerful and well to do communities in the state.
[alert type=”e.g. warning, danger, success, info” title=””]The Hardik Patel space has to be watched closely, as it has a huge potential to upset the current politics of the state, and take it into a yet unknown territory.[/alert]
Violence erupted in Gujarat when the government tried to muzzle Hardik Patel through strong arm tactics. He was arrested, along with a police crack-down on his supporters. The response led to lightening violence across Gujarat, with at least nine persons being killed. The government had to release Hardik Patel almost as soon as it arrested him, and he went back to the media insisting that the police was responsible for the violence. He has also challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi and made it clear that the BJP would not win the next elections until and unless it conceded the Patel community’s demand for reservation in the OBC category.
Patel, in the process, has painted a dismal image of the state that the corporates had embraced as their own. According to him, the discrimination has led to a wide divide between the urban and rural areas, that the largest number of farmers committing suicide are from the Patel community, that the young farmer’s son, despite excellent marks, is not able to get a good job, and that if some farmers have made large houses it is only because their lands have been acquired by the government forcibly. According to him even the prosperous Patel community abroad fled from poor living conditions in their home state.
Clearly, Hardik Patel has not been speaking to the deaf. Instead, his saga of discrimination seems to have struck a responsive chord in the Patel community who now look upon reservations as the panacea to all their economic ailments. And in the process, they have broken the myth of development with the reality of poverty and unaddressed aspirations.
All is clearly not well in Gujarat, the state that Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to describe as the role model for India. Social indicators have been low for a while now, but then these have always been submerged by a compliant media under corporate endorsements. The minorities live in the state as second class citizens, and dissent at any level is met with a heavy hand as officers like Sanjiv Bhatt know better than others. The Patel unrest has thus, confirmed what many knew and turned the spotlights on to the anomalies that eat into the image of Gujarat, so carefully propagated over the years.
The current media exercise is to find out who is behind Hardik Patel as he is not seen as someone who can do this on his own. Rumours abound without convincing confirmation. The point is that, rightly or wrongly, with backing or without it, he has emerged as a leader for the Patels in Gujarat and is in a position he is now poised to occupy for a while if he so wants and if he plays his cards right. His quiet, unassuming exterior that makes cynical scribes question his abilities seem to work for the Patels who have embraced the young lad as one of their own.
Interestingly, he has taken over all the right wing symbols of nationalism with a video seeking to portray him as a larger than life figure. Nationalist songs, har har mahadev slogans, gods and fire, et al seek to convert the youth into a leader capable of challenging PM Modi in his home state at least. He seems fearless, at least at this point, and determined to go through with the agitation. Right now he speaks with a humility that has him addressing television anchors as “sir ji”.
The Hardik Patel space has to be watched closely, as it has a huge potential to upset the current politics of the state, and take it into a yet unknown territory. Inherent in this are its own dangers, but currently Patel insists that the fight is not against any other community, but for the rights of at least two sub castes who feel they have been more discriminated against.
The fact that the chief minister of Gujarat Anandiben Patel is herself from the same community has cut no ice with the protesters who have pitted themselves against the government. Hardik Patel has declared that the lotus will not bloom in the next Assembly elections unless the reservation demand is met. Anandiben Patel clearly has little to no idea at the moment of how to deal with this emerging phenomenon; she tried strong arm tactics that have failed miserably. The next effort will be to split the movement, and it here that political acumen of the new group will be put to the litmus test.