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The "P" factor in Gujarat polls

Madhavsinh Solanki
Early this week, I was talking with a senior government official, who happens to belong to one of Gujarat’s economically powerful and influential communities, Patels. I decided to chat with him because he knew its cross section better than many, and had an in-depth first hand information about the community. We were chatting informally, one reason why I’m constrained to keep his name anonymous. Though his pro-Patel soliloquy appeared somewhat jarring, the insight he gave me into his community impressed me. He talked straight, without mincing words, basing on his extremely wide-ranging contacts with politicians of all hues. What struck me most was his following statement, which he made in the context of the Gujarat state assembly polls, to take place in December: “We as a community will vote for the BJP again. The Congress doesn’t seem to want us, though we are ready to be it.”
As for the newly-formed Gujarat Parivartan Party, led by ex-chief minister Keshubhai Patel, this is what he told me: “We respect Keshubhai Patel. To us he is Keshubapa, our father figure. I touch his feet whenever I meet him, even our women folk do it, not because he is a politician but because we all regard him as Patels’ greatest elder statesman.” But he was quick to add, “We will not vote for his party, as we don’t see any other person who can succeed him and promote our community. He is too old, 84.” The logic he gave me was interesting, “Would you ever like to get an LIC policy done from an old man? No, because you know when the policy will mature, this fellow wouldn’t be there to deliver it to you…”
Why BJP? I asked him, and this is what he told me, “By default. The community has no love lost for Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi. But we will cast our vote in favour of the lotus symbol as we have no option. Patels are quite disturbed the way Modi treated our leaders, especially Keshubapa, The view is strong in the community that Modi is untrustworthy, that he hasn’t done much for us, though we are a powerful community, economically and otherwise.” I asked him whether the community will vote BJP even though many Patels are facing trouble because of the riot cases. Had the riots not been instigated, as is widely believed, by those around Modi, these cases wouldn’t be there. He replied, “Well, even then.”
And why not Congress? This was his logic: “We were with Congress ever since Sardar Patel took up leadership to fight for the cause of farmers. He showed us the path to be educated, encouraged us to go to Africa and do business. We acted as a community, and followed him, going to other countries too. He gave us a sense of respect when we were treated as untouchables. I remember, 50 years ago, we couldn’t drink water from the same pot which was used by the Brahmins. There were separate glasses for Brahmins. During village functions, we were made to sit in a separate group.” The Congress, he added, made Patels even more powerful as time passed, in 1950s through 1970s. “We are particularly grateful to Indira Gandhi for giving us land by ushering in the era of land reforms”, he said.
The official insisted, “It was a great change, coming at a time when we were reeling under the terror of Rajputs in North Gujarat and Saurashtra. The Rajput dominance was initially done away with by the Sardar but its demise came under Indira Gandhi. She took away their huge pieces of land, and distributed these to us. We are indebted to her more than anyone.” But he felt, what she did was washed away in 1980s, when Madhavsinh Solanki became chief minister, coming up with a theory which united Kshatriyas, including Rajputs and OBC Thakores, the pre-Independence foot soldiers. He said, “Patels became easy target, as land was distributed to us, caste feelings were roused. Such was the frenzy that hordes of Thakores, backed by Rajputs, would attack us, many Patels lost their lives. In the farms belonging to Patels, they would throw stones in the tubewells. How can we forget what they did to us? We are 20 per cent strong in Gujarat, and in a few regions our percentage is as high as 60 per cent, so we had to pay back.”
But haven’t things changed? This was his reply: “You see, no Patel is there in Congress leadership. The three main leaders are Arjun Modhwadia, an OBC, Shaktisinh Gohil and Shankarsinh Vaghela, both Rajputs. They don’t need us.” Ask him about Disha Patel, a Union Cabinet minister, and this is what he says, “Disha stood against Modi in 2007 polls. He would bring with him supporters for campaign. I told him once, he should bring Patels as supporters if he wanted votes and not Thakores in case he wanted to be effective.”
The official agreed, at the end of the conversation, that following Solanki, the view went strong among Patels that unless they had political power, their subjugation in the rural areas wouldn’t end forever. “There are very few Patel cops, one reason why in the rural areas the terror against us remains intact, and we feel that unless we are at the helm we wouldn’t be able to post the right kind of people to take care of us”, he said, suggesting, this has happened despite the fact that the Patels have come to acquire economic power. “After Keshubhai Patel became the chief minister in 1995, the first thing he did was to do away with the eight kilometer limit on farmers to buy land. This helped Patels to buy up land everywhere in Gujarat; now we own huge pieces of land, equal to what Rajputs owned once. We diversified in business and trade as never before, and began taking keen interest in social sector,”, he said, adding, “Naturally, aspiration for power in the community is bound to come.”
Even as he talking to me, I was reminded of what a Japanese scholar had told me in mid-1990s. The scholar, Takashi Shinoda, has extensively researched on the mobility of different communities in Gujarat. Referring to his unfinished research work, he told me, Patels appeared to have achieved the “fastest occupational diversification” in Gujarat and they were poised to take over the baniyas any time.
In 2000, Shinoda published the findings of his research work in an important research journal, where he suggested that the Patels had already taken over baniyas, the traditional business community. He bases his analysis on the examination of major surnames in authoritative list of businessmen. He found that the name Patel surname occupies the top position in all major industries, except hosiery and garments. “The dominance of Patel is overwhelming. Shah follows Patel, occupying either second or third place in most of the industries”, he says, adding, “Most of the other surnames in the list belong to baniya and the artisan castes. Interestingly, artisan surnames such as mistri, suthar, prajapati, and luhar are found in the type of industry in which they have some traditional base and network. Momin and basmiya, Muslim surnames, appear in the cotton textile industry only. We do not find industries with a high concentration of brahman or kshatriya surnames.”
He further says, “The name Patel accounts for 22.3 per cent of all manufactured products in the sample. Its share is particularly high in food products (53.6 per cent), wood products (45.4 per cent), and non-metallic mineral products (34.1 per cent). These same agrobased and rural-based industries have played a very important role in the entrepreneurial development of the patidars. Wood products and non-metallic mineral products are closely linked to the construction industry, which the patidars have dominated in recent years.”


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