The Patels have been known for their wealth, their diaspora networks, their political influence, their social capital, and their loyalty to the ruling BJP. But their sudden agitation for reservations has thrown up two questions.
Why do the Patels want quota benefits? And why are they angry with the BJP? A glimpse into their political evolution may provide some clues.
Traditionally agrarian, the Patidars, or the Patel community, also branched off into trades such as diamonds, textiles and agro businesses. Divided into three sub-castes -- the Leuvas, the Kadavas and a much smaller group called Anjanas — the Patels wield political clout with 12-15% of Gujarat’s 63 million population. Anjanas however get reservation.
Starting with the freedom struggle, when Sardar Patel was their icon, the Patels had supported the Congress for over 30 years. But in 1980, under then chief minister Madhavrao Solanki, the Congress opted for the KHAM formula – Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis, Muslims. Politically orphaned, the Patels led anti-reservation movements in the 1980s, and gradually shifted to the BJP.
Achyut Yagnik, scholar and author of ‘The Shaping of Modern Gujarat’, explains that Patels have since then been the backbone of the BJP in Gujarat. “Both before and after (Narendra) Modi, chief ministers have been Patels, Keshubhai and Anandiben.” Besides the CM, the state BJP president, seven ministers and over three dozen MLAs are all Patels.
Yagnik believes that the roots of the agitation lie in economics rather than politics, and indicates the limits of the Gujarat model of growth.
Patels had invested their surplus agricultural income in medium and small industries – but these sectors never got the kind of support or concessions big business did in Gujarat during the Modi regime. There was intense competition for government jobs and agriculture was no longer a lucrative option for youth. This is the base Hardik Patel has tapped into.
“Also, their grandparents may still be BJP supporters, but the younger generation had now become dissatisfied,” argues Yagnik. He believes this could mark a fundamental political rupture in the state depending on how the BJP responds.