Ahmedabad: Eight months after 23-year-old Hardik Patel emerged on Gujarat’s horizon leading an agitation for reservations for his high-caste Patidar community in government jobs and education under the OBC category, the Anandiben Patel-led government is floundering on how best to move forward.
The otherwise nonchalant BJP in the state, standing on the firm ground laid by Narendra Modi, has not only been unable to handle the Patel agitation that unexpectedly cost it dear during the recent local elections but is also watching with dismay the rising confidence of the opposition Congress for the first time in many years.
After its initial confusion and procrastination over the sudden rise of the Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) lastJuly and August, the Anandiben Patel Government decided to get firm to stop the young turn in his tracks. From the unabashed use of the police machinery and then holding him on the serious charge of sedition in October, the government used all the weaponry in its arsenal. Now, four months after Patel and his associates were thrown into jail, the Anandiben government continues to be jittery.
With Hardik’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) threatening to revive the agitation, thereby exerting pressure to withdraw all police cases against the leader and his supporter the government is now trying to negotiate peace with them. But there lies the government’s predicament—its own police had lodged the serious sedition cases against Hardik and key associates with chargesheets running into some 3,000 pages. According to sources in the State legal department, while it is easier to go easy on petty charges, it is difficult to suddenly withdraw such serious charges from the courts. Meanwhile, there are stories in the media that Anandiben government is on shaky ground and will almost certainly lose the next state elections in 2017.
What has changed in the last eight months that has made the government go from taking a tough stance to its inability to come up with a clear strategy to deal with the Patel agitation?
Loss of confidence
The plausible explanation is the party has lost its confidence after the severe losses in elections to 323 local self-government bodies last December, where the BJP had to bite the dust in the State’s rural and semi-urban areas for the first time in nearly three decades. The Patel factor played a stellar role here, shattering the common belief among the BJP leaders that the party was in an unassailable position thanks to the creation of a formindable foundation laid in the state by Narendra Modi.
The BJP retained all the city municipal corporations and managed to continue its hold in the 56 municipalities (nagarpalikas), which are urban and semi-urban areas, but the shocker came from rural Gujarat where the party could manage to win only eight out 31 district (zila) panchayats ceding the rest to the Congress. Similarly, the party got just 73 taluka panchayats while the Congress won 131 of them.
Another problem is now rearing its head which the government will have to tackle sooner rather than later. The Other Backward Classes, (OBCs) backed by the Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and the Scheduled Castes (Adivasis) have now joined hands to form the OBC Ekta Manch.
Led by another young leader Alpesh Thakor, only in his mid-thirties, the group has warned against granting any share of reservations to the Patel community among the reserved castes.
At a recent rally, Thakor warned the government that his community was aggressive and would not hesitate to “open its third eye” if the backward classes continued to suffer and remain poor and deprived. Though the purpose of the rally, which was held on the Republic Day (January 26), was stated to be Vyasan Mukti (anti-addiction) rally, Thakor used to send out a political message. “We will decide who will be the Chief Minister in 2017 (during the State Assembly elections). We don’t want a chief minister who doesn’t understand the woes of the people.” Even if Thakor insisted that there was no political element to the rally, it is a message Anandiben Patel must have heard loudly and clearly.
Darshan Desai is Editor, Development News Network, and Director, Centre for Media Research, Training and Advocacy