Revolt of the aspirational class

Shiv Visvanathan  

Hardik Patel is today one of India’s most watched political serials. He represents a movement, enacts a fable and constitutes, along with Indrani Mukerjea, the two great aspirational tales of contemporary India. Today, one should not ask: “Who is Hardik Patel?,” but realise there is a Hardik in all of us. He is a Patel in a sea of Patels, who has branded his difference. He is a Patel who knows that he can make a difference.

The key to Hardik, the man, is his face, his style. There is a belligerence, an impatience representing an India which is tired of waiting, a majoritarian group ready to flex its regional muscles. Hardik understands market as well as electoral mathematics. The market tells him that you need a degree to be employed and the maths tells him that the political power of the Patels should guarantee educational entry. It is clear that this is a demand for more, a demand the Patels realise no electoral government can refuse. The bully-boy maths is clear and, with it, the barely repressed violence. In fact, this violence makes it clear that Hardik is neither Sardar Patel nor Mahatma Gandhi.

His quaint slogan relating to the proposed, then cancelled, ‘Reverse Dandi March’ explains it all. If the Dandi march spoke of non-violence and confronted the British Empire with the vulnerability of the body, the reverse march not just abandons but completely reverses these symbols of the past. The idol of the present reverses the iconography of the past, trampling the memory of history in pursuit of politics.

More middle class than marginal

The ‘Reverse Dandi March’ is neither Swadeshi nor for Swaraj, it is more middle class than marginal. It projects ban, threat and boycott as messages. In fact, as Hardik explained, if Gandhi were present today, he would abandon non-violence, as the current state is more repressive and violent than the British Raj. When he argues, “bring out the swords,” he moves closer to Bhagat Singh. In fact, even that comparison is unfair. Hardik smells more of Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal within a caste idiom.

In fact, he can be considered part of ‘project Macaulay II’. If Macaulay spoke of English education and the power of the degree, Hardik speaks of education as a guarantee for jobs. There is a double battle here, a pitched struggle against two systems. First, it is a battle with the Patel patriarchs who have been pompous about power and remiss about caste responsibilities. The very idea of reservation handicaps the Patels in the education game and it is worse to see Patel-run educational institutions being extortionate about entry.

Harik Patel plays the new Macaulay by claiming “no degree, no democracy.” There is an Oedipal struggle here where Patel challenges the patriarchy of Modi, claiming that the lotus will not bloom till the Patels come home. The Patels, despite minor differences, were a taken-for-granted constituency of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hardik’s father was a middle-level BJP worker. So, the revolt against both Modi and the Patel establishment emphasises an Oedipal revolt, establishing the role of youth in the movement. For them, the talisman is an educational degree in this era of development.

Hardik, one senses, is both popular and populist. His popularity is seen in the responses his calls for action attract. Every wave, threat or promise of violence adds a layer of support for him and his mystique. If the ban is the Modi regime’s favourite policy, the boycott becomes Hardik’s weapon.

Patel power is demonstrated by threats to withdraw milk supplies, and collective withdrawals from banks. Protests by women across towns and cities also shows that the movement has caught on. It is clear that this is not a Dalit struggle for rights but the struggle of a dominant caste asking for bigger takeaways from the caste pizza. A demonstration conducted in cars and tractors does not indicate backwardness.

There is a change in attitudes which indicates not just a new sense of society, democracy and law as rule games. Hardik and all the new Patels, Gujjars and Jats are very clear that the rules should work for them, that the Supreme Court ruling that reservation be capped at 50 per cent is irrelevant as long as they have not been accommodated. The cynicism of political life allows them the refuge of the Ninth Schedule, the safe haven that places laws outside the ambit of judicial review. However, the questions our democracy and the administrative system will soon ask is: How many provisions in the Ninth Schedule are the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) likely to have? Is it going to a special, dominant caste haven for the Gujjars, the Jats and the Patidars? The Patel attitude makes a mockery of the reservation games, because now it is every caste for itself. The battle now is for a bigger share and not for justice. One wonders if this scenario represents the altruistic world envisaged by Gandhi and Patel.

Hardik is contemporary. In fact the BJP, as a party and the ruling power, realises that he thrives on the present. He is a figure lapped up by the media, an ideal subject for interviews even if his is a reverse march. He thrives on the media and network and the BJP’s attempt to block networks was a desperate attempt to mute his impact. The news of his arrest was enough to spark protests. He understands the media’s power and its multiplier effect. Second, he knows how to work the media. By contacting the diaspora, he plays on Modi’s weakness because for Modi, they are the ideal Indians — hardworking and trouble free. Here, protest movements sound like agony aunt columns, while the diaspora abroad is stoic, civic and proud of its civic self.

The diaspora is Modi’s ideal constituency as it is even more patriotic than the resident Indian. The Patels there represent a civic class as opposed to the local Patels, who are political and agitationist. Hardik is shrewd and calculating enough to issue threats of a Patel demonstration in New York. For Modi, that is sheer embarrassment and amounts to irreverence within the very symbolic constituencies he made powerful. Hardik, the trickster, was not something the BJP anticipated.

A Patel vs. Patel battle

The battle between Patel and Patel is fascinating to watch. ‘Patel vs. Patel’ is the stuff of graphic novels, somehow reminiscent of Mad magazine’s great comic strip Spy vs. Spy . At one end stands Anandiben, who has been completely ambushed by the Patel uprising in her backyard. The Chief Minister invokes the riots of 1985 and 1987 but what she really seems to fear is a Nav Nirman Andolan-like agitation. It may be recalled here that the Nav Nirman agitation of 1974 brought down the elected government of then Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel.

Anandiben gives the official spiel that caste and community have no role in the secular game of development while realising that her politics and power is totally Patel- driven. It is interesting that she treats the masses as ‘labour’ needed for development while Hardik speaks the language of electoral politics. The Chief Minister emphasises caste and class as the critical categories while Hardik plays up the youth card. For Anandiben, ‘youth’ is not a category. She sees Hardik’s complaints as humbug, clearly showing she is out of touch. The first threat to Modi’s legitimacy is emerging from his own backyard and the BJP is speechless with misunderstanding. Hardik realises that youth and women are bandwagons on which he can ride to power.

It is clear that Hardik is no longer a local figure because media and the limits of electoral politics have made him a new hero. Hardik Patel is not just a sign but a symptom that the politics of caste quotas needs to be revisited and debated. Our politics has become a politics of quotas where administrative fiat can make or break the future of communities. The battle to be seen as “more backward” becomes critical. Caste becomes the most critical idiom of politics, a currency to be speculated with, in the electoral brokerage of power. The gap between distribution as disbursing an increasing share of the cake and justice as a normative phenomenon becomes bleak.

The court intervenes to argue that caste cannot be the sole determinant of reservation. In fact, it struck down the government’s notification that included Jats in the official list of OBCs. Hardik Patel’s campaign has opened up the Pandora’s Box about justice and the ability of electoral democracy to handle issues of affirmative action.

Hardik is the new sign of our times and his actions indicate that the new generation is not going to wait for the court or the Parliament to determine its fate. In fact, what Hardik represents is the ambitions of the small town, ready to see democracy and market as acts of consumerism. This is a generation that has no memories of the ration card, that believes in speed and struggles for instant gratification, which believes that life, whether in the form of a start up or a struggle, is just a few steps away. The power of the Hardik Patel story lies in this. He is representative of the new Indian small town — confident, parochial, primordial yet deeply modern. He is the new Indian of the global era, one who can make or break democracies. His mood becomes the litmus test of politics today.

( Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy .)

The cynicism of political life allows those demanding OBC status — like the Gujjars, the Jats and the Patidars — the shelter of the Ninth Schedule, the haven that puts laws outside the ambit of judicial review. The question is: for how long?

With his quaint sloganeering, his unabashed demand for a greater share of the ‘caste pizza’

and his agitationist attitude, Hardik Patel is emblematic of the small-town, aspirational youth — confident, parochial, yet deeply modern. He is also a symptom indicating that the politics of caste quotas needs to be revisited and debated

The Patel attitude makes a mockery of the reservation provisions. The battle now is for a bigger share and not for justice. One wonders if this world represents the altruistic world envisaged by Gandhi and Patel

Our politics has become a politics of quotas where the battle be seen as “more backward” becomes critical. Caste becomes a currency to be speculated with in the electoral brokerage of power. The gap between distribution as disbursing an increasing share of the cake and justice as a normative phenomenon becomes bleak