India’s grand old party, the Indian National Congress, has been courting Hardik Patel with ardour. Before it, the Bharatiya Janata Party tried to frighten him into submission, then took to placating him, and now seeks to split and weaken his organisation, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, which initiated the movement to wrest for the Patidar or Patel caste the status of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and reservation in government jobs and educational institutes.
To think, Hardik is just 24 years old, still nine months short of the minimum age required to contest in the Assembly or Lok Sabha elections! It must feel heady for him to have powerful suitors at his age, grab media headlines, and boast 1.25 lakh Twitter followers. He’s arguably the most powerful of India’s youth icon.
Yet Hardik is also the new name of the problem dogging Indian polity. It has been festering for now nearly a decade, worsening every passing year and threatening to become incurable. Hardik’s clout and popularity have risen because he symbolises the problem with all its throbbing intensity that could wrack India’s body politics as well.
The power of Hardik as a symbol arises from the challenge he represents to the Indian state’s reservation policy for the OBCs. He is a problem because he represents a solution to only his caste of Patels, who are 12 percent of Gujarat’s population and relatively more prosperous of social groups. The extension of affirmative action to Patels in the reservation pool will likely have them corner a large chunk of government jobs floating in the reservation pool. And that certainly become a problem for the OBCs.
The OBCs in Gujarat constitute 40 percent of the state’s population and enjoy 27 percent reservation. In addition, the scheduled castes have 7 percent of reservation and the scheduled tribes 15 percent. Thus, Gujarat has 49 percent of reservation, just 1 percent less than the maximum reservation the Supreme Court allows.
Hardik doesn’t want 1 percent reservation – it is too minuscule to satisfy the ambitious Patels. He simply wants them listed in the OBC list. Given the economic clout of Patels both in India and abroad, the OBCs fear that Hardik’s caste brethren will invariably corner the bulk of 27 percent reservation.
This is precisely why OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, who joined the Congress recently, was quick off the block to oppose Hardik’s demand as soon as he expressed it in 2015. He said he would initiate a counter-movement if the Patels were granted OBC status. No democratic government will want to displease 40 percent to win the support of 12 percent, regardless of the economic and political power the latter might enjoy.
The Rajasthan government passed a bill raising the OBC reservation from 21 percent to 26 percent, of which 5 percent is earmarked for the newly created category of More Backward Classes (MBC). The Gujjars have been clubbed in the MBC category. But because the bill also increases the reservation to 54 percent, legal luminaries feel the Supreme Court will inevitably strike it down.
Rajasthan’s problem is also Gujarat’s. Hardik, like other dominant caste leaders, knows the government will choose the OBCs over Patels because of their overwhelmingly superior numbers. His strategy, therefore, has been to scare the BJP with a belligerent movement, as also show that the Patels might not on their own win the party an election, but they can certainly become an important factor behind its defeat. So whichever party is willing to grant OBC status to the Patels, it will, according to Hardik, receive his community’s support.
A way out is to legislate for removing the Supreme Court mandated 50 percent cap on reservation to include the Patels. The government can have such an Act included in the Ninth Schedule, which will put it outside the ambit of judicial scrutiny under Art 31-B of the Constitution. However, in 2007, the Supreme Court asserted that it could review all laws placed after 24 April, 1973 in the Ninth Schedule on the “touchstone of violation of the fundamental rights and the basic structure doctrine.” This means this option is more or less foreclosed for the government.
The 50 percent cap on reservation is not unique to Gujarat. For instance, the Gujjars of Rajasthan want to be shifted from the OBC to the scheduled tribe list, arguing that they are unable to take advantage of reservation because of the stiff competition in the category they already are. But their inclusion in the scheduled tribe list is opposed by the Meenas, who feel the Gujjars will take a slice of jobs which come to them otherwise. It led to Gujjar-Meena clashes in 2008, and the police resorted to firing to control them.
It is wrong to presume the government can influence the commissions. Unable to nudge the NCBC to grant OBC status to Jat, the Manmohan Singh government set aside the decision and extended reservation to OBCs. This the Supreme Court struck down, much to the disappointment and anger of the Jats.
It was to overcome this impediment the Narendra Modi government introduced the 123rd Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha earlier this year. The Bill transfers the power to decide on the inclusion and exclusion of social groups in the reservation pool from NCBC to Parliament. The Lok Sabha passed the bill, but it was amended in the Rajya Sabha, by the Opposition, that made it incumbent on the government to “ordinarily” accept the Commission’s recommendations. Further, in case the government decides not to accept the Commission’s recommendations, it will have to cite its reasons in writing to Parliament. These amendments create scope for the courts to decide whether the government’s decisions on inclusion or exclusion of social groups in the reservation pool are arbitrary.
The leaders of socially dominant groups don’t care for these complexities much. After years of oppressing lower castes, they have been socialised in the tradition that either violence or threat is an effective political tool to promote their interests. From this perspective, Hardik isn’t an exception.
Yet he has stolen a lead over others because he belongs to Gujarat, which is the home state of the prime minister. His belligerence has acquired greater salience because he is seen to have thrown down the gauntlet to the prime minister, who looms large over the political realm. But it is also true Hardik’s stature has been enhanced because of the state crackdown on him, including entangling him in sedition charges. To his credit, he hasn’t been browbeaten
Hardik said the Congress leaders have assured him of providing OBC status to his community. Its contours will reportedly be sketched in his meeting with Rahul Gandhi in the first week of November. We don’t know what these assurances are or whether these can be firewalled from judicial scrutiny. If Rahul’s assurances convince Hardik, he said he would then support the Congress.
In such an eventuality, both Hardik and his ideological opponent, Alpesh Thakor, will be on the same side. This is ironical because the grant of OBC status to the Patels would have been a less complex task but for the opposition of Thakor and his ilk.
Can Rahul’s assurances pass judicial and constitutional impediments as well as satisfy Hardik without alienating Alpesh? This is unlikely. But it doesn’t matter to Hardik because his current mission is to teach the BJP a lesson for mistreating him. Hardik’s clout will be enhanced should the BJP fail to win Gujarat. He can then mount pressure on the succeeding Congress government to deliver on its promise of granting reservation to Patels. Under the current reservation architecture, the Congress will be unable to satisfy the Patels. Hardik will then be back on the road campaigning against the Congress betrayal, most likely before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to strike a hard bargain.
Should the BJP win Gujarat, Hardik will be pushed into the shadows for a while. He will nurse his wounds and then return with even a more incendiary issue. Till now, he has harped on the inclusion of Patels in the OBC category. This represents one side of his demand, the flip side of which is the rolling back of reservation.
From wishing for the OBC tag, he will become an ardent anti-reservationist and hope to win the support, silent or vociferous, of upper castes who believe affirmative action is inimical to India’s interests. It will split Indian society horizontally, and turn Indian polity volatile. This is why Hardik isn’t just the new name of the problem dogging India’s polity. Hardik Patel is the name of India’s political illness that awaits a cure.