Gujarat Assembly Election 2017: Behind Hardik-Congress alliance, a quest for suitable brides among Patidar youth

If you want to understand why Patidar youth are revolting against the BJP under Hardik Patel's leadership, think of the iconic film Deewar. Imagine for a moment that a Patidar youth is Amitabh Bachchan's character in that film, and he is having a conversation with Shashi Kapoor, a non-Patidar urban youth. This is how the conversation would progress:

Patidar: I have land, I have a house in a village, I have tractors, I have agriculture income. Tumhare paas kya hai? (What do you have?)

Shashi Kapoor: Mera paas wife hai. ( I have a wife).

After reading this, don't get misled into believing that the Patidar agitation is just about finding a suitable girl. Yes, it is also about that. But, the quest for a wife is one of the defining results of a socio-economic upheaval that turned the lives of Patidars upside down over the past decade.

 Gujarat Assembly Election 2017: Behind Hardik-Congress alliance, a quest for suitable brides among Patidar youth

Hardik Patel has his loyal brigade of Patidar youths. Sandipan Sharma/Firstpost

Patidars were traditionally land tillers in Gujarat. In the 1970s, after the land reforms by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, many of them became owners of the farms they were cultivating. For around three decades, they survived on a steady farm income generated from cotton, groundnut and castor. But, once the harvest stopped yielding high returns, their youth became unemployed and, thus, restless.

Dinesh Bambhania, convenor of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), says over the past decade, once farming became non-profitable, Gujarat's villages became full of youth who were un-educated, unemployable, and, thus, unmarriageable. "Girls just did not want to marry jobless youth living in villages. They wanted husbands with steady incomes living in Gujarat's towns and cities."

Ambu Patel, a social worker based in Kharaghoda village of Surendranagar constituency, around 100 kilometres west of Ahmedabad, sums up the plight of the Patidars: "Villages are full of youngsters who have no education. Even those who are educated have no jobs. And girls are just not interested in them. How do you expect them to be happy with their lives?"

Hardik and his reservation stir tapped this environment of joblessness and bachelorhood. Channelling this anger and unrest among the youth, talking about their insecurities and desire for better lives, he spearheaded an agitation that galvanised the Patidar youth in mid-2014. "Anamat bheekh nahin, bhagidaari hai (reservation is not alms, but participation)," Hardik proclaimed and became the voice of the angst of youth like him.

The question now is can an agitation having its genesis in a quest for better life, and, of course, a suitable wife, find expression as an electoral exercise? Can a socio-political movement turn into a political revolt?

In private conversations, leaders of PAAS confidently claim the BJP will lose the election in Gujarat. Their optimism is based on two factors: One, internal surveys that predict 100-plus seats for the Congress and a BJP rout in rural areas. And two, the belief that Patidar youths will vote against the BJP, leading to a 60-40 split between the Congress and BJP of the community's vote.

Before the Patidar quota stir triggered anger and unrest among Patidars, they were considered a committed vote-bank of the BJP. PAAS leaders claim around 85-90 percent Patidars voted for the BJP, tilting the electoral battle against the Congress in every election since 1985.

Hardik Patel addressing a rally comprising mostly of Patidar youth. Sandipan Sharma/Firstpost

Hardik Patel addressing a rally comprising mostly of Patidar youth. Sandipan Sharma/Firstpost

The animus with the Congress was a backlash against the Rajput (locally known as Darbaar) hegemony in the state. The Darbaars (ruling families) were zamindaars (landowners) before the reforms that gave titles to tillers. Once the land passed into the hands of Patidars, friction developed between the two communities.

Since the Darbaars were powerful and politically influential because of their links to the Congress, the Patidars felt threatened by their rivals. In the early 1990s, former Gujarat chief minister and Patidar stalwart Keshubhai Patel promised them security, safety and freedom from oppression with his popular slogan of eradicating "Bhay, bhookh and bhrashtacahar (fear, hunger and corruption)." He also promised "Ram Rajya" in Gujarat, winning over Patels for the BJP.

But, Hardik's movement has now triggered a drift away from the BJP. Those who have no memory of the Patidar history appear inclined to abandon the BJP and try out the Congress. They see the BJP as the oppressor now, especially after the Anandiben Patel government ordered firing on protestors demanding quota, killing 14 Patidar youth.

Hardik claims there are 1.28 crore Patidar voters in Gujarat. This, according to his estimates, is almost a fourth of the electorate. His organisation believes around 70 lakh voters would vote for the Congress, leading to the BJP's decimation.

His supporters argue that Patidars would not forget the murder of their youth and victimisation of their families by the government. "More than one lakh youth were booked by the police after the Patidar agitation. They faced numerous hardships and problems because of this. Do you expect them and their families to forget all this?" asks Bambhania, who started the reservation stir with Hardik.

It is now clear that that Hardik and his team would now work with the Congress to beat the BJP. On Wednesday, Hardik announced that his organisation accepts the formula proposed by the Congress for giving quota benefits to Patidars. He is unequivocal in his call for defeating the BJP, saying if it indirectly benefits the Congress, so be it.

The Patidar story had begun by the painful realisation of not having a wife. It has led to an ironic denouement that now allows the Congress to dream of a victory by saying: Mere paas Patidar hai.

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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2017 14:07:30 IST