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The OSS front: what Modi's Gujarat has to fear beyond Hardik Patel

Darshan Desai | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 6:59 IST

The consolidation

  • As a reaction to Hardik Patel\'s quota stir, the OBC Ekta Manch was formed
  • This group could consolidate the OBCs, SCs, STs and Muslims

The threat

  • Together, these four communities form over 75% of Gujarat\'s electorate
  • With local body elections in November, the BJP govt in Gujarat is wary of this group

The figurehead

  • Alpesh Thakore leads the OBC Ekta Manch, and is the son of a Congress leader
  • His words hark back to the KHAM formula of the 1980s, which led to Congress success

More in the story

  • How 30 years of the BJP\'s hard work could get undone
  • What the future holds for Hardik and his movement

It wasn't just about Hardik Patel's mistakes. There is another key reason why the Anandiben Patel government in Gujarat muzzled the nearly four-month-old Patel agitation for reservations under the OBC category.

Incidentally, the reason is the same one that stopped Hardik in his tracks, after he had made a big announcement to hold a 'reverse' Dandi Yatra.

The common fear: the consolidation of the OBCs, Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis), with silent backing from Muslims.

The OSS factor

These four groups together account for over 75% of the electorate of Gujarat. A combination of these, known as KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) was what drove the Congress to succcessive election victories in the 1980s. In fact, four-time CM Madhavsinh Solanki once won 149 of the 182 assembly seats, a feat not even Narendra Modi could beat, despite vowing to do so.

If the government were to give in to the Patidars' demand to be included in the 27% OBC reservation, the resulting backlash could result in these communities' consolidation.

OBCs, SCs, STs and Muslims account for over 75% of the electorate of Gujarat

In fact, 12 Muslim communities enjoy OBC status in Gujarat, and thus, an OBC-SC-ST grouping, or OSS, as they call themselves now, would have implicit backing from Muslims too.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party can ill-afford to let these communities regroup under one umbrella.

Hardik's hesitation

Hardik and his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) drew a massive wave of support in the initial weeks of the agitation. Riding on this wave, the aggressive 22-year-old announced he would launch a 'reverse' Dandi Yatra from Dandi village in south Gujarat to Gandhinagar.,

Mahatma Gandhi had marched from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi in 1930 to launch a protest against a salt Act brought in by the British.

However, Hardik could never gather the gumption to go ahead with the march. This, despite announcing that he and his supporters would court arrest if needed.

Except Surat city, Dandi and other areas in south Gujarat have a large OBC Koli-Patel community of fisherfolk and farmers, as well as Adivasis. This is the readon Hardik kept changing the venue of the Dandi Yatra till, at the last minute, he zeroed in on Mangadh Chowk in Surat's Patel-majority Varachha area. Even so, he could barely gather 50 people.

There were two prime reasons for this. First, the state government imposed a prohibition on the assembly of four or more persons along the entire route that Hardik and his cohorts had planned demonstrations.

But an even bigger fear was the counter-threat by the newly-launched OBC Ekta Manch, an umbrella group of 146 communities, including Muslims, supported by Dalits and Adivasis. The Ekta Manch had threatened that any misadventure by PAAS would be dealt with accordingly.

Ekta Manch takes root

At about the same time that Hardik launched the PAAS agitation in July, Alpesh Thakore set up the OBC Ekta Manch. Alpesh already heads the Thakore Kshatriya Sena, which has a strong network in almost 7,000 of the 18,000 villages of Bihar.

OBC Ekta Manch rallies weren't as well attended as PAAS's, but they brought together OBCs, Dalits, who enjoy 7% reservation, and Adivasis, who have a 14% quota.

In July, when Hardik launched the PAAS agitation, Alpesh Thakore set up the OBC Ekta Manch

"Over one lakh people were present in our joint rally under the banner of OBC Ekta Manch, which was held three days before Hardik's show in Ahmedabad. It is because of Alpeshbhai's Thakore Kshatriya Sena that we could mobilize this crowd in just three days," 24-year-old Romel Sutaria, president of the Adivasi Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (AKSS), told Catch.

Among the Dalits, Valjibhai Patel of Dalit Panthers and Council for Social Justice was present at the OBC Ekta Manch show of strength. He says, "It is only the unity of the three which can stand against the anti-farmer, anti-Dalit attitude of the industry-friendly government. This is a larger fight."

The Congress link?

There was a time when Hardik thumped his chest, warning the ruling dispensation that the Patels, though 14% of the population, could make or mar governments. He said the BJP would have to pay a heavy price in the 2017 assembly elections.

But Alpesh had countered, saying: "Remember, we are 78%, and we will not let the government wait even till 2017."

Interestingly, 30-year-old Alpesh is the son of Khodabhai Thakore, president of the Ahmedabad district unit of the Congress. But he is said to have "separated from the party long ago".

Asked about this, former Congress MP from Patan in north Gujarat and a Thakore community leader, Jagdish Thakore, told Catch: "Alpesh's Manch is a non-political entity. Our party's stance has been very clear, irrespective of Hardik or Alpesh. There can't be any compromise on the quota for OBCs, SCs and STs.

"The consolidation of these three, along with Muslims, will help the Congress in the local body elections next month and in the future too. Similarly, disillusioned Patels will also come to us from the BJP."

Alpesh's perfect timing

As for the BJP, senior-most cabinet minister Nitin Patel says: "We are trying our best to ensure that the Patels remain with the BJP, as ever, during the municipal elections (to 323 local bodies) next month. In fact, our attempt is to keep all communities tethered to us."

The elections to the 323 local bodies, including six BJP-controlled city municipal corporations, will be a test for the ruling party since there are 3.55 crore eligible voters - more than half of Gujarat's 6.38 crore population.

But Alpesh still wants to keep the government on its toes. He told Catch: "We can't allow even 1% from our 27% quota to go to the Patels. Any reduction there would mean the government might have to re-adjust the quota of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. This situation is not acceptable to any of us. If they wish to increase the quota and extend it to Patels, we have nothing to do with it.

30-year-old Alpesh is the son of Khodabhai Thakore, president of Ahmedabad district Congress

"And why do the Patels even need reservation? 50% of the ministers are Patels, they control the economy and most educational institutions, they are the affluent class."

Alpesh's timing is impeccable. Even back in August, just three days before Hardik's show of strength in Ahmedabad, he had stunned BJP leaders, including CM Anandiben Patel, with this rant:

"These general or upper castes projected Muslims as our enemies and incited OBCs to fight against them. But now, we have learnt that Muslims are also OBCs. They are among us. We have now realised that our actual enemies are those who want to snatch our right to reservation.

"Our future strategy is to strengthen the combined forum in all the districts in the state, the focus is completely on this. There is no plan to contest any elections. Of course, this includes the Muslims."

His words harked back directly to the KHAM formula, which the BJP had painstakingly dismantled by converting the anti-reservation movement of the mid-1980s into a communal conflagration.

Undoing 30 years of BJP's work

The Patels, hand in hand with the BJP, were ironically at the forefront of the anti-reservation agitation against the quota for the OBCs.

"This is when the BJP realised that its anti-reservation stance was only strengthening the Congress," says political scientist Achyut Yagnik.

During the peak of the 1985 anti-quota stir, Muslims were only bystanders when mobs of higher castes attacked the Dalit localities. In fact, the slogan 'Dalit-Muslim bhai-bhai' came up, since both lived in the same neighbourhoods and Muslims would stand up to guard Dalit colonies.

This is when the BJP, along with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, started recruiting Dalits to create an illusion of empowerment. This is also when the anti-quota agitation changed into a communal riot, isolating the Muslims on one side and consolidating the Hindus, including Dalits, on the other.

By the 1990s, the BJP had come to power in Gujarat and has never looked back.

"The BJP can never allow the situation of the 1980s to develop again and wash out its strategy. This is the key reason that Hardik Patel's agitation had to be stopped in its tracks," points out Yagnik.

How Hardik was neutralised

The mistakes that Hardik made, seemingly drunk on the enormous public attention he drew, came in handy for the Anandiben government.

After holding two massive rallies in Surat and Ahmedabad, the latter of which saw violence in its aftermath after a police crackdown that left 12 people dead, Hardik had brought the government to its knees. But his fall began here.

During his meeting with the Chief Minister and senior cabinet ministers, he never mentioned quota, but demanded action against as many as 4,200 policemen for the crackdown on PAAS and also demanded the sacking of Minister of State for Home, Rajnikant Patel.

The government sought 10 days' time, and an assurance that there would be no public demonstrations in support of his reservation demand. Hardik broke this ground rule immediately after emerging from the meeting, and declared that his reverse Dandi Yatra would go on as planned on 19 September.

The jig was up. An enraged Anandiben issued stern orders to crush the agitation and this did happen.

Last seen, Hardik was being transferred from one set of police officials to another, facing charges of sedition and insulting the national flag.

The Rajkot police, after apprehending him ahead of the India-South Africa one-day match on 18 October, handed him over to the Surat police on sedition charges, for exhorting his community youngsters to kill some policemen, instead of thinking of committing suicide.

Then, after being remanded to police custody for five days, he was handed over to Ahmedabad police, which arrested him and four of his supporters on yet another sedition charge.

"This will continue till the municipal elections are over in November-end," said a minister with a laugh.

First published: 27 October 2015, 8:49 IST
Darshan Desai

The writer is Editor, Development News Network, Ahmedabad, and Director, Centre for Media Research Training and Advocacy