It was just over a year after Narendra Modi’s BJP steamrolled 26-out-of-26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat obliterating whatever little was left of an opposition party, when a spirited 23-year-old boy exploded on to the political horizon out of nowhere, demanding by a public movement a slice for his affluent Patidar community in the reserved OBC (other backward classes) cake.
Coming from the powerful community that gave birth, nurtured and lent invincibility to the Bharatiya Janata Party, Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) should have shaken the ruling dispensation out of its stupor at the very first sight. It did not. The BJP should have had its ears to the ground to check the approaching demon in its baby steps. It did not.
Ten months on, the Anandiben Patel government just does not know what to do with the young army of Patidars that has kept on exploding on its chest at regular intervals. Rallies, meetings, letters to the chief minister, threats being issued through the media, among other things, have been pointers to the simmering storm.
The last was on Sunday, when hordes of supporters of the Sardar Patel Group supported by Hardik’s PAAS laid siege to district jails in Mehsana, the home district of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Surat followed by clashes with the police, stone-pelting, and arson.
The key targets were cabinet Minister Nitin Patel, who heads the seven-member ministerial committee appointed by the CM to resolve the Patel issue, and Rajni Patel, minister of state for home, both of whom are from Mehsana.
Their camp offices were set on fire and Rajni Patel’s unoccupied house in Mehsana was put to flames the next day. This was besides the office of Mehsana MP Jayshree Patel.
This was a jail bharo (court arrest) programme, which had been announced in advance, and preceded by a day-long token fast in Surat on 13 April to remind the government about the demands of the agitating Patels.
Over 500 people from the community from across the State, including two local BJP MLAs Praful Pansuriya (Kamrej) and Kumar Kanani (Varachha), former minister and the party’s Kisan Morcha general secretary Gordhan Zadaphia, Surat Mayor Asmitaben Siroya and several ruling party corporators of the BJP-ruled Surat Municipal Corporation, attended the event organised by the Patidar Sangh. Several such events have been happening over the last few months.
What was the government’s response to the fracas on Sunday? “Oh, is there an agitation here? Such things keep on happening,” Chief Minister Anandiben Patel’s said, when confronted by reporters after a government function in Valsad.
Then there was a meeting -- yet another -- called on Monday between the ministerial committee and senior representatives of leaders of various community organisations, but the leaders of the agitating bodies were not invited here.
And what was decided at the meeting? To call another meeting. And this was not the first meeting, there have been several such but without a result. The next response to Sunday’s incidents was lodging an FIR against 25 people allegedly involved in it.
Speaking of the last ten months, what has the seven-member ministerial committee done so far? Last heard, it was to submit a report to the chief minister. Between this, Congress legislator-turned-BJP MP from Porbander Vithal Radadia, a powerful Patel leader from Saurashtra, stepped in as a mediator and met jailed Hardik Patel several times. Every time he emerged from a meeting with Hardik, he said an end to the Patel agitation was round the corner and that a compromise had almost been struck.
Nothing happened, except that the Patel leaders only reiterated their resolve not to relent till their demand for reservation is met and action taken against Minister of State for Home Rajni Patel and scores of policemen, including officials, for the violent crackdown on the Patels after the huge 25 August Ahmedabad rally attended by three to four lakh people from the community.
Twelve people had died in the clashes then. The third demand of the Patels is to withdraw police cases against their leaders, including withdrawal of sedition charges against Hardik Patel and two others.
To begin in the start, after initial procrastination the Anandiben government decided to get tough with the young turks with its unabashed use of the police machinery and threw Hardik and others in jails invoking sedition charges on them.
This cost the BJP dearly in the elections to 323 local self-government bodies, shattering the myth that they were sitting pretty on the formidable foundation laid by Modi, who left it with a 26-of-26 victory.
For the first time in three decades, the party was dealt with a shocker in semi-urban and rural areas in the elections -- it won only eight out of all 31 district panchayats in its control and managed to get only 73 taluka (tehsil) panchayats while the Congress party won 131.
It is only after this that the Anandiben Patel Government has been trying to negotiate a settlement, but have been unable to bring anything to the table.
(The writer is Editor, Development News Network)