Why are the Patels in Gujarat so angry?

The violent agitation by the ‘patidars’ in Gujarat has brought to the surface discord and disenchantment in Gujarat. The ‘patidars’, who are Patels, a surname noted for being numerically the most popular Indian last name in the US, are angry and agitating against the government headed by Chief Minister Anandiben Patel because as a caste group they feel that the political and economic space for them in their homeland Gujarat has shrunk significantly.

To understand the incongruities here – a group noted to be well-to-do and beneficiaries of the so-called Gujarat model, now up in arms – one has to go back a little.

Patels adopted the Swaminarayan sect in large measure. Gujarat politics was until then dominated by a combination of upper and lower castes. Patels could not find sizeable space. The Bhartiya Janata Party saw in this situation an opportunity. They began planned wooing of the community. This is how Gujarat became a Hindutva laboratory.

The Gujarat State was formed from the bilingual Bombay State in 1960. Patels gained prominence in Gujarat due to land reforms. Both under the Royatwari System and the princely state system, land went to Patels. Patels are an industrious community. They improved farm productivity and prospered. The surplus from agriculture was invested in business and manufacturing in urban areas. Another section of adventurous Patels migrated to Africa and from there to UK, USA and many other countries. Hard work, frugality and kinship helped in making wealth there, too. The NRIs ploughed their wealth back home both in land and non-land economic ventures. Patel domination began from 1960s in the economic sphere. They constituted a good proportion of middle and upper middle class of Gujarat. Few also joined the wealthier group.

Patels are not savarna, the upper caste in the conventional social caste hierarchy. Once economically well off, they sought social status, and it came through the religion-sectarian route. Patels adopted the Swaminarayan sect in large measure. Gujarat politics was until then dominated by a combination of upper and lower castes. Patels could not find sizeable space. The Bhartiya Janata Party saw in this situation an opportunity. They began planned wooing of the community. This is how Gujarat became a Hindutva laboratory. Caution must be introduced that not all Patels went this way. Further, a small section of Patels had modernised. Also, Patels had their chance in Chimanbhai Patel and Babubhai J Patel becoming Chief Ministers in the 1970s. But, majority became subjects of the laboratory.

However, the Patels and the BJP had to wait until the 2002 riots happened. Between 1976 and 1990, Jhinabhai Darji, who became PCC President in 1972, introduced the famed ‘KHAM’ strategy bringing Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslims together as a force. The strategy became most effective and the Congress gained unprecedented space in the Gujarat Assembly. In the Sixth (1980-85) and Seventh (1985-90) Gujarat Assembly, Congress won 141 and 149 of the total 182 seats, though it failed to consolidate power for future. But until then, the Patels as a community were politically marginalised.  

In the Eighth Assembly (1990-95), BJP won 67 seats and two Patels collaborated. Keshubhai Patel from BJP lent support to Chimanbhai Patel. Soon Chimanbhai Patel broke the coalition and re-joined the Congress. But BJP with the support of the Patels gained further ground and then never stopped. In the Ninth Assembly in 1995, the BJP won 121 seats and Keshubhai Patel became the chief minister. Due to internal strife he could not hold office for long. However, in fresh elections in 1998, the BJP won 117 seats and Keshubhai Patel assumed office firmly.

It was in the Kachchh Earthquake in January 2001 that Keshubhai Patel was seen not delivering properly. He was replaced by Narendra Modi in October 2001. Within a short time, in February 2002, one of the worst communal riots took place in Gujarat. Patels who had acquired money and social status in urban Gujarat especially in Ahmedabad, but had not found ‘due’ place in politics, saw power in their hands with the Hindutva strategy of the BJP.

They provided support to the BJP to the hilt. Assembly elections were held in 2002 before the completion of the Assembly term. Narendra Modi became the Chief Minister with a good majority of BJP and went on to stay until May 2014. Patels viewed BJP’s ascendance to power in Gujarat as establishment of their supremacy.

The new leadership killed whatever limited democracy that existed within the political party in power. Patels got some berths in the Cabinet but no one could become independent and powerful. Those who got the chance busied themselves to make things better for themselves. Keshubhai Patel sensed it and revolted only to fail repeatedly. Patels still saw a future in Narendra Modi’s leadership. In the 2012 Assembly elections, Keshubhai Patel’s rejection was complete.

At the Panchayat level, Patels could not become powerful because the Gujarat Government in arrogance had refused to implement schemes like NREGA. In rural areas, political and economic power comes from such programmes.

However, in 14 years, the process of disillusion began. Patels as a community started experiencing an economic set back also. The Patels from Mahesana district which had prospered through the milk economy opted to migrate to UK and USA, allegedly illegally paying huge sums to the human traffickers. International sealing of borders brought a setback to this process and the costs spiralled. The diamond industry in Surat experienced volatility. The modifications in the industrial policy of the state hit badly the small and medium enterprises in Gujarat, dominated by Patels. Vibrant Gujarat investment summits reduced space for Patels. Land Acquisition policy hit small and marginal Patel farmers too. The grazing lands and water bodies that helped private production were lost.  Patels had sent their children to schools and colleges paying big fees but this failed to get jobs for them. The doors of small and medium units were also closing.

At the Panchayat level, Patels could not become powerful because the Gujarat Government in arrogance had refused to implement schemes like NREGA. In rural areas, political and economic power comes from such programmes. Finally, the Patel leader who was deputed by Narendra Modi after he left and the other Patels who were in power failed to instil any confidence in Patels.

August 2015 was the first eruption. The defeat in District and Panchayats in end 2015 was a big blow and challenge to the Patel dominance. Thus it is real and to an extent perceived shrinkage in political and economic spaces that have made Patels become desperate and come out on the roads against the state. Unfortunately, the only politically sympathetic demand they can make is to get them declared as OBCs as the savarnas would still be reluctant to admit themselves in their fold. The OBCs aren’t happy either to embrace this lot!

It is therefore ironic that a community that saw its peak of power under Narendra Modi is now agitating against the very establishment that it helped grow and gain power. The implications of this for the so-called Gujarat model of development are serious and far reaching.

 

Dr.Sudarshan Iyengar is a noted Gandhian economist and former Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth.