In Gujarat, special measures for poor among 'general castes'

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, Gandhinagar
  • Updated: Aug 28, 2015 18:13 IST
Motorbikes were damaged after thousands of protesters convened a demonstration in the state to pressurise the government into providing reservation to the Patidar community. (PTI Photo)

In a move with implications for the national debate on reservations, the Gujarat government will offer special packages for the economically backward among general castes in education as a way to 'quell the discontent among the young of upper castes'. Patels have been agitating for either inclusion in the OBC category for reservation or abolition of reservation over the past month in the state.

The government remains at a loss about how the movement could have been organised in such quick time, and how things went wrong. But it is now firmly in damage control mode. Based on conversations with multiple government and political sources in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad, Hindustan Times has pieced together the government and BJP's mix of a political and administrative approach to the situation.

This would include a careful investigation of what went wrong on August 25th and continued focus on maintaining law and order; outreach to Patels through packages; and gradually isolating and exposing Hardik Patel, the young leader at the forefront of the agitation.

At a loss

A senior government source said that they have not been able to unravel two issues - what was the organisational machinery behind the rally and where did the funding come from.

But there is a sense that the agitation assumed a popular form. "It was an emotional issue which struck a chord. There was an underlying anger against reservations which was exploited. Many people came in the name of community unity."

But the government is clear they will stick to the stand that reservation is not possible. "Many parties would have skirted around the issue but we have been clear since day 1 that additional reservation will not be possible," said the source.

Politics of economic reservation

But what the movement has done is spark off a debate on criteria for reservation and if it should have an economic basis.

Even before the Ahmedabad rally, the government had constituted a committee led by minister Nitin Patel to deal with agitators. Patel told HT that many delegations - of Patels, Brahmans, Kshatriyas - had come to him and argued for economic based reservation for poor of all castes. That debate, he said, was beyond the state's purview but they would address roots of the problem, especially in the field of higher education.

"We have expanded government educational institutions in the last ten years. We are also willing to do more for those economically backward segments who attend private institutions." Observers say that the high fees in private colleges is among the drivers of the current agitation. Many Patel students in such institutions feel envious of those who have entered government institutions, even as they have to shell out lakhs in private colleges. This in turn results in them blaming the reservations regime for the failure to get admitted in state institutes.

Patel said, "We will partly sponsor their fees; we will create more hostels; we will give more scholarships; we will try to subsidise education," said Patel.

Providing an analogy, Patel said that if someone entered his room and there was no seat, he arranged an additional seat and created space for the individual. "We will do everything to create additional space in education and reduce their expenditure which is causing strain. That is the way out."

When asked about jobs since competition over government jobs is also a motivation behind the movement, Patel said that in no state or country can the government assure everyone of jobs - all it can do is create conditions for more development and employment.

He rejected the contention that the agitation exposed the limits of the Gujarat model. He said it in fact was a result of the success of the same model. "There is greater awareness, education and aspiration among people. Expectations have increased. If boys and girls had not gone to school, would they have asked for access to higher education and jobs? And who ensured they studied - it was the BJP."

Maintaining harmony

In the immediate context, the government will continue to be alert about the law and order situation. A top source said there is a realisation that the police could have handled the situation better on the night of the 25th - when Hardik Patel was arrested and reports of lathi-charge came in.

But while admitting to 'tactical mistakes', the source said, "We were taken aback by how severely and quickly the backlash happened. How did they manage to attack and burn so many places in less than two hours? Both police actions and then the reaction require a careful investigation."

He added that the government was clear that the 2002 kind of situation had to be avoided at all costs. It had managed to bring the situation under control in quick time - and deserved credit for it.

"We also managed to prevent inter community clashes. That would have been disastrous. The confrontation was confined to the police."

Patel politics

Besides law and order and administrative packages, the government is hoping that Hardik Patel would get slowly 'exposed' and Patels would return to BJP.

"He is hollow. Many people who attended his rally have told us they were disappointed. As media scrutiny on him increases, you will see he does not have the caliber or stability to give this direction," an official said.

Politically, the BJP is banking on rifts within the Patidar community. A senior community leader, Lalji Patel, has already moved away from Hardik. The party will also deploy its own Patel leaders.

Nitin Patel said, "We are from the same community. They are our relatives, our neighbours. We will communicate our message."

Whether this mix of political management and administrative outreach will work will determine the relationship of the Anandiben Patel government with the larger Patel community and the prospects of BJP.

Read: Patel stir hits Ahmedabad: Inside a city charred by caste tension

Hardik Patel: The 'New Modi' spells trouble for BJP in Gujarat

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