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Forebodings of a Storm in Gujarat

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to be paying close attention to the agitation of Patels in his home state and his successor Anandiben Patel has been desperately trying to prevent the stir from getting out of hand, but neither PM nor CM have been finding much success in containing it. The Patels are turning more and more aggressive: they have now started withdrawing money from banks. From just one co-operative bank, Rs 20 lakh was withdrawn by Patel customers in one day. The withdrawals will continue until the Patels say they achieve the demand for job and educational reservation for the youth of their community. “We will not put the money back into the bank till our demands are not met,” they say. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Patel agitation, which is fired by the quota demand, is growing into an anti-BJP government agitation. It could be an agitation that might decide the political composition of the next Gujarat Assembly in 2017.

The BJP has ruled the state for three terms, so there could also be strong anti-incumbency factor working. Hardik Patel, the convener of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samit (PAAS), the Patel front leading the agitation, is in active touch with former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, who had left the BJP after being marginalized by Narendra Modi during his chief minister’s tenure.  Keshubhai Patel formed his own party, which did not do well in the 2012 elections, and he later rejoined the BJP. Hardik Patel met Keshubhai Patel on Monday before he led a 15-member PAAS delegation to meet Anandiben Patel. Does it not suggest that the political forces who have been opposed to Narendra Modi are gaining support and respect in Gujarat, which is an indication of difficult days ahead for the BJP? In several Patel-dominated villages, the agitators have ‘banned’ the entry of political leaders, putting up banners which say: “No political leader or worker, be it of BJP or Congress, must come here to beg for votes. They must not hold any meeting or rally here. If they do, we will not be responsible for anything that happens to them.”

The elections to local bodies are approaching in Gujarat, and that could be a test for the agitators to show how they can upset the political arithmetic of the BJP. The BJP factions opposed to Anandiben Patel might work covertly in concert with the candidates supported by the PAAS and other Patel groups to defeat BJP candidates. It has happened with all youth agitations in the country in the past: political parties and factions have taken advantage of the youth anger to drive out the rival parties and factions and gain power. The anti-BJP government sentiments among Patels were first triggered by the rejection by Anandiben Patel of their demand for quota on the ground that no more reservations can be granted to any community as there was a ceiling of 50 per cent reservation laid down by the Supreme Court. Their anger reached a peak when ten people died in police firing on their protest rally on August 25 in Ahmedabad.

The Patels have been demanding suspension and criminal prosecution of the officers of the state government who ordered the “police atrocities.” One of the reasons why banners carrying a stern ‘warning’ to politicians against entering villages have been put up is the anger against them for not coming out in support of the community after the violence.  On Monday, Hardik Patel led a delegation to meet the Chief Minister for the first time since the agitation began, and the five-hour meeting was not about the quota demand, but on the Patels’ demands for suspension of officers who ordered the lathi charge on August 25, prosecution for murder of officers under whose jurisdictions agitators died, release of agitators held for attempted murder and rioting and free treatment for the injured. The government agreed only on the point of free treatment. Other promises were vague: CID would investigate the cases of those arrested for attempted murder and rioting to find out whether innocents had been framed; all the steps possible within legal framework would be taken in cases of alleged police atrocity.

Obviously, the talks were not successful. The government was desperate to stop Hardik Patel and his supporters from undertaking the reverse Dandi Yatra they had postponed on getting invitation for a meeting with the Chief Minister. After the meeting, Patel announced the PAAS would take out the reverse Dandi Yatra and continue their agitation, including “Ekta Yatra” on September 19 and “maha sabhas” at five locations. Clearly it was an announcement of resumption of the agitation, while the government was claiming that Patel and other PAAS leaders had agreed to come back for another meeting after ten days. That indicates continued discontent, which carries forebodings of a Patel storm before the next Assembly elections. And considering that the Patels have been the mainstay of BJP rise to power in the state, it could be bad for the party.

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