Rajkot/Morbi: “P for Patels, P for Power” is a slogan that is often used by the Patel community in Gujarat to describe themselves. The community, which accounts for nearly 12% of the state’s population, was once instrumental in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) rise in Gujarat in the early nineties, after the Congress alienated them.
However, after an intense agitation led by 24-year-old Hardik Patel to demand anamat or reservation for the last two years, a section of Patel voters in Saurashtra region and political observers feel that this could be the first election in years where the community is split on the lines of class and urban-rural divide.
In Patel-dominated assembly seats of Rajkot, Morbi and Amreli this divide is starker. While the anger among the economically disenfranchised young and rural voters has been brewing for some time, the tipping point came with the death of young Patel agitators in 2015 in firing by security forces. In contrast, the economically better-off Patels stand staunchly behind the BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“This government does not care about us, our crop insurance money has stopped and our roads are in a poor state. When our young men went to protest against this they were killed by the authorities during the reservation agitation and the government kept watching,” said Mehul Patel, a 22-year-old farmer from Hirapur village in Morbi district, who is also enrolled for a postgraduate degree in arts from Saurashtra University.
Patels have a high concentration in both Saurashtra and central Gujarat and are largely divided into Leuvas and Kadvas with the former in majority. Together they account for 80% of the Patel population. Some of the other smaller Patel sub-castes already have an other backward classes (OBC) status.
Patels are politically crucial in several assembly seats of Saurashtra. For instance, Gondal constituency in Rajkot district, has nearly 40% Patidar population. Not surprisingly, therefore, both the BJP and the Congress are competing to win their support.
While the BJP has nominated 50 Patels in Gujarat elections, the Congress has nominated 41, according to PTI reports. However, convener of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Sammelan (PAAS), Hardik Patel from Kadva community, has come out in support of the Congress after it promised to provide reservation if elected.
Sooraj Bhai Padariya, who is a Leuva Patel from Gondal and owns a cable shop, says, “Congress no longer has that influence among people and they cannot expect to get Patidar votes by just showcasing Hardik Patel. Patidars in Gujarat are an influential community and reservation is not an issue for us. The BJP has taken care of our community and Patidars won’t betray Modi,” said Padariya.
Alluding to the split in the community, another voter, 75-year-old Khodabhai Karsanbhai Patel from Jale village in Morbi district said, “This election is all about my Patidar and your Patidar. It has ended up dividing the community where the not-so-well-to-do are with Congress and well-off are with the BJP.”
Analysts believe that this is the first time that the community has split so starkly and that this has the potential to disrupt the state’s politics.
“Politically, it is the first instance in recent history where we are seeing such divergence in the Patidar community of this kind. If the Congress is able to sustain this then it could lead to long term realignment in the state,” said Amit Dholakia, professor of political science at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara.
Gujarat elections are slated to be held in two phases on 9 and 14 December while the counting of votes will take place on 18 December.