If political mobilisation could win for it the fruits of reservation in employment and education, the massive shows of strength over these last few days in Gujarat should have yielded results for the Patel community by now. Their agitation to get the community included in the Other Backward Classes list has brought the State almost to an administrative halt. Not only Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, but also Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of parties in other States have been given a rude awakening to the intensity of the demands of the agitators. However, even if the Gujarat government wanted to, it cannot extend reservation benefits to the Patel community merely on the basis of an executive order. Inclusion of more communities in the reservation list is already a highly controversial issue and fraught with procedural and legal obstacles. Not only would communities that are already enjoying reservation benefits oppose any move that would shrink their pie, but other communities currently excluded from the OBC list would demand to be treated on a par with the Patels. More importantly, any decision to extend reservation benefits to new claimants might not pass judicial scrutiny. Recently, the decision to include Jats in the OBC list was overturned by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the perception of a self-proclaimed socially backward class of citizens cannot be a constitutionally permissible yardstick for determination of backwardness. Indeed, the court specifically warned against a caste-centric definition of backwardness, and called for new practices, methods and yardsticks to be evolved to identify socially disadvantaged groups for extending the benefits of reservation. Like the Jats, the Patels will not find it easy to meet the specified criteria for social and educational backwardness.
For the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power both at the Centre and in the State, the Patel agitation is a fresh political headache. The party, which counts the Patels among its key constituencies, will need to be seen as having backed the agitation to the full in order to arrest any erosion in its traditional vote-bank. For Prime Minister Modi especially, to envision the loss of the BJP’s political hold in Gujarat would be particularly distressing. There is simply no way to appease the Patels without alienating some of the other backward class communities in the State. Moreover, the BJP finds itself dealing with a new, youthful leadership of the community focussed on jobs and livelihood concerns, and not political power. In a situation where it can neither support nor antagonise the agitators, the BJP and its governments in the State and at the Centre must resist the temptation to grant the demand of the Patels in principle and deny it in practice. It would be cynical to merely wait for the movement to somehow lose steam with time, and not confront the issues that are at stake.