The Long and Dark Shadow of Mandal Politics

The agitation of the prosperous Patels for OBC status opens the door to more such movements by the well off

Hardik Patel was unknown till last month. He shot to prominence in July this year when he parted company with the — rather colourless — Sardar Patel Group, to launch his own Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS). By all counts Hardik might well have remained colourless too. He has an average education, an average family background, average wealth, all in all, a typical underage boy next door.

Yet, at 22 years of age he is undoubtedly the youngest mass rabble-rouser our country has seen; a Justin Bieber of India’s political pop. As the reigning heartthrob of Gujarat’s Patel community, he is often called Patidar Hriday Samrat. This in-your-face take on Prime Minister Modi’s sobriquet, “Gujarat Hriday Samrat”, is meant to both challenge and slight the current government of the state.

Hardik Patel’s career is still at the first stage rocket phase, yet look how high he has flown. In the past 60 days or so, he has addressed dozens of rallies all over Gujarat, enchanted tens of thousands and won tremendous acclaim. Yet, doubts persist about whether he is as self-propelled as it is often made out to be.

Hardik sightings are now quite the pastime for many. Amongst others, he has been spotted in the company of Praveen Togadia and Gordhan Zadaphia, neither of whom are on Anandiben Patel’s official guest list. They are still part of the BJP flock, but as votaries of hard core Hindutva, they have been put out to pasture with other designated black sheep.

There is, however, a little history behind this. The traditional rivalry between Leuvas and Kadva Patels showed up when Keshubhai, a Leuva, opposed Modi’s ascension in 2012. At this point, the Kadvas stayed on with the ruling wing of the BJP and won. Even though Keshubhai had his pockets of strength in places like Rajkot, Mehsana, and Saurashtra, his faction was routed.

All of this was seemingly forgotten when Modi triumphed as Prime Minister. Yet the wounds must have still been there. Is it just a coincidence that Hardik Patel, Keshubhai Patel, Gordhan Zadaphia and Praveen Togadia, are all Leuva Patels? Probably this association has already been made which is why Hardik Patel announced that he was a leader of all Patels, “Kadva nahin, Leuva nahin” (not Kadva or Leuva).

Yet he missed out naming another branch of Patels, viz., the Anjanas. This community’s official entry among the OBCs has been a sore point with the Leuvas and Kadvas who are still trying to force the door open. Hardik’s main demand is that all Patels should be considered “backward” and that it is unfair to favour just the Anjanas. A prosperous distant relation hardly releases the kind of envy that a well-placed neighbour does.

Political opportunism

He has a point here because so many other castes have muscled their way into this category on the basis of pure political heft. If Jats and Marathas can demand OBC status, Gujjars ST status, why should the Patidars be left out? This absurdity was waiting to happen once the Mandal reservation scheme was accepted. As political opportunism, not social uplift, was the rationale behind OBC reservations, calculations needed to be considered “backward” were carefully doctored.

This aspect is best expressed in the way social backwardness is detailed. This fact is exaggerated manifold because it carries more weight than what is given to either educational or economic backwardness. Social backwardness has four sub-criteria, each more ridiculous than the other, but together they account for a whopping 12 points.

To begin with, a community gets three points if it performs manual labour, which any prosperous Jat, or Maratha or Patidar would proudly lay claim to. Another three points if the women in the family contribute to household income; even milking your buffalo or weeding the garden patch qualify. Three more points if other castes think poorly of you. Which caste has universal acclaim? Finally, another round of three points if a significant proportion of marriages in the caste takes place before the permitted legal age. In other words, people are now being rewarded for actually breaking the law.

Add them all up and we already have 12 points, while it needs only 11 to be considered as an OBC. There is little reason, therefore, to even think of economic and educational backwardness and consequently, these criteria are rarely brought up. As social backwardness is hard to disprove, most “backward” aspirants harp on this aspect most of all.

Politically, the Patels are undoubtedly on top on every front. They dominate the private sector and control, among other things, the diamond polishing business and the groundnut oil trade in the state. At least one third of ministers in Gujarat’s cabinet today are Patels, even though this caste comprises but 15% of the state’s population. According to estimates, about 70% of Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) are owned by Patels.

Patel domination

Over and above all of this, they have another unique feature that sets them apart from all other castes in India. No other caste dominates both the urban and rural economy the way the Patels do. They have one foot in the village, another in the city, and more than a toe hold in Africa, the UK and the US. It is this trait that probably took the BJP ideology easily from city to village in Gujarat.

That is all very well, but each state is unhappy in its own way. Out of roughly 261,000 MSMEs in Gujarat, as many as a third of them are officially “sick”. According to Hardik Patel’s organization, the slogan of Vibrant Gujarat has yet to become a reality with the small businessman. This obviously implies shrinkage of urban jobs in the private sector, leaving the state to pick up the slack in terms of employment.

A possible boost to Hardik’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti could well have been the failure of many Patels to secure jobs in the recruitments held recently in the public sector. If only they had a 5% share in the OBC pie, so many Patels might have made the grade. A cynic might well say, when there are over 140 communities listed as OBC, what difference does one more make?

Yet this agitation led by Hardik has a bellwether quality about it. If this movement succeeds, will others come out in the open and trample all over the well laid garden Narendra Modi left behind? If Hardik Patel becomes the cat’s paw of Togadia and Zadaphia will the right turn in Gujarat get sharper?

Understandably, for this reason, the Centre and the state are concerned and, as we all know, once the issue of cultural pride gets recognition it’s hard to beat it down. Hardik Patel’s organisation realises this too, which is why they are pushing their luck right up to the margins. Political brinkmanship will be on full display on both sides and, no matter which side wins, from now on OBC movements will always be led by prosperous castes.

The sad news is that politicians are tempted not to look at economic issues in the eye but to cast them aside as a caste related matter. Apart from those who seek to gain immediate advantage by squeezing themselves into the OBC category, the limitations of such niche politics are so clearly limiting. Yet, attempts to redress economic issues will remain caste coded because we have politically ceded territory to Mandal ideologues.

Apart from the instant damage such policies bring about, they also firm up the Orientalist view that India is caste ridden by definition. Mandal’s recommendations helped further this point of view, including among academics who should have known better. After OBC reservations became a live reality, no politician was willing to bell it for fear it would wake a sleeping dog up.

Caste calculations don’t always work

All of this added up to make caste politics a self-fulfilling prophecy. This, in spite of the fact, that there are so many instances when election outcomes made caste calculations look stupid. When Indira Gandhi won in 1971, or the Janata in 1977, or Rajiv in 1984, or Mayawati in 2007, or indeed Modi in 2014, where was caste? In fact, contrived caste calculations will fail again in the forthcoming Bihar elections.

Yet, in the interregnum when little people strut out, the call of the OBC bellows, as if stereophonically, from all sides. This process has not yet been formally conceptualized but, for the time being, we could call it “Mandal’s curse”.

Dipankar Gupta is Director, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University.