Gujarat elections: In quota stir epicentre Mehsana, it’s Modi vs Patidar sentiment
With the Gujarat assembly elections due later this year, Mehsana, a Patidar bastion, will be a testing ground for the BJP that must either win them back or break up their movement.india Updated: Jul 13, 2017 07:48 IST
“The relationship between the BJP and Patidars used to be like that of a father and son,” says Suresh Bhai Patel, convenor of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) in Mehsana.
It is here that the movement for OBC quota for Patidars originated in 2015. Suresh Bhai’s personal office — three chairs, a cupboard and a computer — acts as its headquarters.
The 55-year-old was once a BJP member. Patidars used to do well back in the day when he was a young man, he says. “We used to fund our own schools, colleges, temples, hospitals and pharmacies. We didn’t need the government, but we helped the BJP come to power. Now when we need help, the party won’t even listen to us.”
Mehsana is an old BJP stronghold. In 1984, when the party was routed across the country, Mehsana was one of the two Lok Sabha seats it won — its first in Gujarat.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the face of BJP in Gujarat, was born in this northern district, which today has 20 lakh residents and seven assembly seats.
It also has the bulk of the state’s Patidar population. They have always stood by the BJP, but are not sure anymore.
Over the past two decades, Patidars have been faced with a crisis common to dominant farming communities across the country. Their farms have shrunk and their expectations widened.
Many Patidars want to sell their farm lands and move to cities. And to retain their dominance in the new social setup, they want quotas in educational institutions and jobs.
In 2015, nearly five lakh Patidar youth went on a rampage in Ahmedabad to demand reservations. Hundreds of agitators were arrested, including the 22-year-old leader of the movement, Hardik Patel.
With assembly elections due later this year, Mehsana will be a testing ground for the BJP. It must either win back the Patidars or break up their movement.
“Ninety per cent of Mehsana’s Patidars are with PAAS,” says Dilip Patel, a 25-year-old who spent three months in jail for leading a rally in Mehsana in 2015. At that time, he was on a break from a job in Dubai, where he claims to earn Rs 70,000 a month working at an oil rig. “I used to get Rs 7,000 for a similar job at a private oil refinery in Kalol.”
Dilip says his friends are desperate to escape the rural dead-end. “They are selling land and paying travel agents as much as Rs 35 lakh to go anywhere they can find a job.” Wherever they end up, they will always blame the ruling party for their plight, he says.
- Patels make up 14% of Gujarat’s population
- In 2012, Patels first brought up the demand for quota on behalf of the Sardar Patel Group (SPG), a community organisation headquartered in Mehsana.
- In 2015, Hardik Patel, then 21 and social media coordinator of SPG, took charge of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, a Patel group focussed on reservations, and fronted its first big rally
- Despite escalating Patidar agitations through 2015, the Gujarat government led by Anandiben Patel turned down their demand for OBC quota citing SC ruling of 50 % cap on caste-based reservations
- Since the first rally in Mehsana, Patidar youth have agitated in large numbers from Ahmedabad to Surat. Nine of them have died in clashes with the police.
Young homemaker Taru Patel is equally furious. Her cousin was one of the two rioting youth killed by police bullets in Mehsana in 2015. “The government will have to give quota to Patidars one day. If the Constitution can be written, it can also be changed,” she says.
Sitting next to her in a middle-class living room in Modhera Chowk, 26-year-old Ratnikant Patel, too, rues his plight: “What kind of India is this?” Two years ago, fed up of rejection by government departments — first he applied for a job as a school teacher, then a roadways clerk — he stopped running his neighbourhood's Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakha.
By various local accounts, the Patidar movement stands diluted. “Hardik Patel went to jail for nine months. In that time, many youth left under pressure from families,” says SK Langa, head of the zilla parishad.
“Also, the BJP has been actively regaining ground in Mehsana with grassroots engagement,” adds Langa.
In the recent gram panchayat elections in the district, the party won 41 of the 156 seats unopposed.
Back in action after 15-month absence, Hardik Patel has been busy cultivating a larger voter base.
“It’s not about the Patidars anymore. It’s about youth and farmers,” he says, surrounded by a coterie in a villa on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.
“The BJP is talking about 150 seats. It won’t even get 50,” Langa says.
Not everyone’s buying that optimism. As an observer of the tug-of-war in Mehsana put it, “Modi has to do just one rally in Mehsana, the whole picture will change.”
(In a few months, PM Narendra Modi’s home state goes to the polls in what is being billed as one of the most important tests for the BJP before the general elections in 2019. HT travels to five of Gujarat’s most important cities and through them examines some of the issues that are shaping the poll campaign. This is the fourth of a five-part series)