Another trouble in the camp: BJP struggles with its Patel dilemma in Gujarat
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a Patel dilemma on its hands in Gujarat. It is for the first time in more than two decades that the party is facing desertion from a community that formed its core support base.
Over the last few months, the BJP has been trying desperately to woo back the Patidars or Patels into its fold and it was in this connection that the Gujarat government had convened a meeting with community leaders on 26 September. But the meeting failed to yield desired results.
The question that stands before the BJP's poll managers at this point of time is – how far can the party go to woo the community back at a time when the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, through his Saurashtra visit, is threatening to convert their anger into votes for his party?
On Tuesday, the BJP government announced a series of measures to appease the Patels. To address the issue of reservation for the community in educational institutions and offices, the government has decided to set up an Unreserved Class Welfare Commission. This will be on the lines of other community-based welfare boards and corporations.
The government had earlier provided 10% reservation to Economically Backward Classes (EBCs) that was quashed by the Gujarat High Court. A judicial probe panel is also looking into the alleged excesses perpetrated by the police during the Patidar reservation stir.
Gujarat's Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel has announced that cases registered against agitators during and after the agitation will be withdrawn on merit. “We will ensure that jobs in the cooperative sector are given to kin of those who died in the course of the agitation,” Patel said.
But the government remains non-committal on the demand for a Rs 40 lakh compensation to the families of those killed and also on the core issue of reservation.
Leaders from the community, Hardik Patel and Lalji Patel, while welcoming the constitution of the Unreserved Class Welfare Commission have pointed out that the core issues remain unresolved and the stir for reservation will continue.
More the merrier
Now, while the BJP on one side has been trying to get the Patels to come back home, the party has also been making overtures to the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and the Scheduled Castes (SCs).
While Patels constitute around 13% of Gujarat's voters, the OBCs account for around 48% and the SCs around 7%. The OBCs and the SCs have always been wavering voters but the BJP had capitalised on their votes at large, particularly the Koli and Thakor votes among the OBCs.
One needs to remember that the OBCs have picked up a leader in Alpesh Thakor, parallel to Hardik Patel among Patels and Jignesh Mevani among Dalits. While Hardik was seeking reservations for Patidars, Alpesh was among those opposing it allaying fears that the Patels might be appeased by the government at the cost of OBCs.
Over the last few months, the BJP tried to reach out to Alpesh while giving out signals that he might join the saffron camp. But at the same time, there have been reports of the OBCs threatening to throw him out from his own community.
“Hence at this point of time, Alpesh remains non-committal adding to the chaos and anxiety of the political camps. But he has been smart enough to extract his pound of flesh from both the BJP and the Congress till now. Right now, even if he is seen as the 'B' team of the BJP, there will be a split in the OBC camp,” pointed out veteran political analyst RK Mishra.
Alpesh was smart enough to get the support of both the Congress and the BJP for his core plank of anti-liquor campaign that threw him up as a powerful OBC leader.
“The BJP's dilemma is that if it goes overboard in wooing the Patels, it will be facing the ire of the OBCs as well as the Dalits. And at this point of time, it is not sure whether the Patels will come back en block. On the other hand, even if it is able to get Alpesh into its fold leading to a split in the OBCs, it is not sure how much of the OBC strength will come out in its favour,” pointed out a senior media person and a keen political observer based in Ahmedabad.
“With everyone keeping their cards close to their chests, there is plenty of confusion in this fluid situation,” said Mishra.
A senior media person who has been studying caste dynamics in Saurashtra and North Gujarat for more than a decade said:
“The relations between Patels and OBCs in the villages cannot be called sour. But then they prefer keeping to themselves. The OBCs are known to vote for their community candidates at a very hyper-local level. They do not care about the parties, but only the community. This is evident from the Kolis and Thakors having a sway in OBC politics due to their large strength.”
Why the Patels?
The Patels have emerged as the most powerful community because of their economic strength and the say they have in the state government. This is a community that has its roots in agriculture and even if the community members have emerged as business tycoons, their connect with the agriculture land remains intact.
If one goes back into history, the community had always shown an affinity towards the Congress in Gujarat till Indira Gandhi was at the helm of affairs in the party. The initial affiliation was on account of Sardar Patel who was always invoked as one of the tallest and dynamic Congress leaders encouraging the community to pursue higher education and go global.
A member of the Patel community had told this reporter some years back – “Later the community supported Indira for the land reforms which saw the community members getting chunks of land while being freed from the terror of Darbars or Rajputs.”
But the cracks appeared because of the Congress endorsing the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) formula for electoral gains. The BJP moved in to hijack the community during the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid movement, the subsequent communal riots of 1992 and the Mumbai riots of 1993.
By making Keshubhai Patel, a Patel leader from Saurashtra, the chief minister after winning the polls in 1995, the BJP further consolidated its hold on the community.
But at this point of time, the BJP stands on the back foot as it is not confident of Patel support. The farmers, a large number of whom are from the Patel community, getting annoyed with the party on the issue of farm distress has added to its woes.
“The desperation of the government can be seen from the fact that on Sunday, a day prior to Rahul Gandhi starting his Saurashtra tour, the officials and ministers were called to declare that the Gujarat government would procure groundnut at Rs 900 per 20 kg after Diwali against the prevailing market price of Rs 600 to Rs 650 per 20 kg,” Mishra said.
Saurashtra, particularly parts of Rajkot, Junagadh and Jamnagar districts, is known as groundnut bowl of India. The government claims that with increased Minimum Support Price (MSP), the farmers would get an additional income of Rs 500 crore.
The BJP is not on firm footing when it comes to Patel support. To add to their woes Rahul targeted the farming community during his visit. His donning the cap amid cheering crowds with 'Jai Sardar Patidar' written on it has added to the BJP's insecurity.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen