It took a 22-year-old to break what has now become Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s customary silence on uncomfortable issues. With photographs of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel placed behind him, a somber-looking Modi appealed for peace in Gujarat, a state where he has held the reins for 13 years, saying ‘violence does not benefit anybody’.
At the time of writing, 10 people have already died in the state. The army is out, schools and colleges shut, mobile internet services suspended and curfew is in place in several cities, including Ahmedabad.
The 22-year-old, Hardik Patel poses a threat to the state not just in terms of law and order but in challenging Modi’s vaunted ‘Gujarat model’. If Gujarat has been such a model of prosperity, then how does one explain why a group that dominates its economy and politics is now agitating for reservation benefits?
A commerce graduate with 50% marks, Patel wants his Patidar community to be included in the 146 that already make up the state’s other backward castes (OBCs). “A Patidar student with 90% marks does not get admission in an MBBS course, while SC/ST and OBC students get it with 45%,” he says.
Regardless of the swirling conspiracy theories of who and which parties are supporting his movement, Patel represents a volatile demographic: young, aspirational, impatient — and quick to change loyalty. And this is where he poses his most potent threat.
This is a demographic that believes fervently in education as the key to prosperity. The figures are out: primary school enrolment is now nearly universal. But it is the increase in enrolment in the tertiary level with a gross enrolment ratio of 20.4 in the 18-23 year-old group — an increase of over 50% over the past five years — that is most striking.
Yet, India produces twice as many fresh graduates as we can absorb in jobs. Another survey found that only 33% of graduates aged 20-29 had a salaried job in 2012.
So, what happens to the aspirations of those who have invested in an education but either can’t find jobs or are hopelessly under-employed? It is this politically aware, vocal constituency that Patel represents. And it is this constituency that has the power to derail governments if aspirations and ambitions are not met.
The framers of our Constitution saw reservation as a temporary measure for 10 years at most to aid the most marginalised people of our country. But over the years, the demand for reservation based on caste, aided by complicit political parties, has only spread: Jats in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, Gujjars in Rajasthan, Marathas in Maharashtra and so on. Ironically, in each of the states, the new groups pushing for reservation are actually dominant in terms of economic and political clout, making a mockery out of the concept of reservation for the marginalised.
Gujarat already has 27% reservation for OBCs. Another 15% for STs; 7% for SCs and the remaining 50% — the cap on reservations placed by the Supreme Court — is for the disabled and ex-servicemen. Those not in these groups, must compete for the remaining open seats.
Chief minister Anandiben Patel says she cannot increase quotas but could offer an economic package for those currently in the non-reserved categories. This might assuage Patel’s demand for either conceding to reservations or abolishing ‘caste-based reservations for all sections keeping only the economic criteria for reservation benefits’. It is this alternative — scrap quotas altogether — that has the potential to change the politics around reservations. But it will be a brave party that will take on this challenge.
Patel’s agitation is not about just quotas but about re-examining a system that has over the years been used conveniently by political parties to further vote banks.
Liberalisation’s children now want more. In 1991, 40% of today’s Indians were yet to be born. Now that they’re here, they are asking: what’s in it for us? No government, leave alone one that came to power on the promise of development and ‘achche din’, can afford to ignore them.
(The author tweets from the handle @namitabhandare. The views expressed are personal)