A sword-wielding 22-year-old activist has emerged as the most pressing political threat to Narendra Modi, accusing the Indian prime minister of breaking a promise to provide jobs that helped him win last year’s general election.
Hardik Patel, a firebrand protest leader from Gujarat, vowed last Sunday (30) to spread the agitation over caste preferences nationwide, just days after the worst violence in more than a decade in western India left 10 people dead.
India was forced to call in the army last Wednesday (26) following riots and arson across Gujarat after a mass rally in the state’s main city of Ahmedabad turned violent.
Patel, who was briefly arrested, led the rally of an estimated half a million people demanding special treatment for the Patidar or Patel caste.
The Patidars are one of the state’s most affluent communities, but they say they are struggling to compete with less privileged castes for government jobs and university places.
“We will take the movement all over the nation and turn it into a country-wide movement,” Patel said. “This is going to be a long fight.”
Patel has stirred upheaval in Gujarat, the state Modi ran for 13 years before he became prime minister – an era of rapid industrial growth that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) successfully pitched to voters as a “model” to bring prosperity to India’s 1.2 billion people.
Patel calls the model hyped, saying Modi “tried to sell platinum when all he had was steel”.
India sets aside a proportion of jobs and places for Dalits, known as “untouchables”, and for other so-called “backward castes” and tribals under measures intended to bring victims of the worst discrimination into the mainstream.
But the policy of “reservation” causes resentment among other communities who say it freezes them out.
“Due to reservations, the country is 60 years behind. The government needs to give reservations to all the needy communities,” Patel said last Sunday.
The Patels, who make up 14 per cent of Gujarat’s 60 million people, are not poor by Indian standards. Originally landowners – the name Patel means one who owns land – they have branched out into trades like diamond polishing in India. The community is also highly mobile and Patels own thousands of small businesses in Britain and the United States.
Patel, by his own admission, scraped through college and failed to land a steady job. But he has proven to be a talented organiser and rabble-rousing orator, creating a mass movement in a matter of weeks.
Protests culminated last Tuesday (25) in a rally by half a million people in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city. Violence broke out across the western state after police detained Patel briefly, leading to at least seven deaths.
“Brother Modi is very angry with me and my community – we have exposed the flaws in his economic and social model,” Patel said in an interview on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. “But he shouldn’t forget that we supported him.”
Modi appealed for calm immediately after last week’s violence. The scale of the protest movement appears to have taken political leaders by surprise, after beginning earlier this year and rapidly gathering pace in recent weeks.
“I appeal to all brothers and sisters of Gujarat that they should not resort to violence,” Modi said in a statement.
However, the prime minister’s calls for calm now cut no ice with Patel. “I am ready for a fight to protect the Patels against the economic domination of the lower castes,” he said last week.
Officials in Gujarat admit to being blindsided by the outburst of anger, even though they knew the Patels’ small businesses were struggling. The community was sidelined when profitable new dairy cooperatives were set up.
Patel came last Sunday (30) to New Delhi to meet leaders of other castes who also harbour similar grievances. Brandishing a sword before his supporters, he vowed to launch protests across India.
The Patel protests have had an impact in the northern state of Bihar that will soon go to the polls. Chief minister Nitish Kumar, seeking to keep Modi’s BJP out of power, has sympathised with the Patels.
What is clear is that Hardik enjoys the patronage of influential Patel politicians who fell out of favour with Modi.
“There are several senior Patels standing behind him who were waiting for Modi to leave Gujarat,” said one industrialist from the Patel clan.
“Hardik Patel is a smart soldier and an able commander.”
After independence, India protected lower castes and tribal communities by reserving college places and government positions for them. These quotas were later expanded to add “Other Backward Classes”, including the one Modi comes from.
Protests against India’s affirmative action programmes erup-ted 25 years ago, when caste-based quotas in jobs and colleges were sought to be expanded. The current movement appears to have snowballed because Modi has not been able to meet the expectations of some of his supporters while the economy remains stalled.
“Gujarat’s much-celebrated growth rate has slowed down in the last two years. There are hardly any jobs to absorb the young and the restless,” said Sebastian Morris, a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. “This problem is not just in Gujarat, but it is faced by youths across India.”
The violence began in Ahmedabad last Tuesday but spread quickly to other cities including Surat, centre of India’s lucrative diamond trade.
Many of the victims were killed when police opened fire on rioters, but one officer died in hospital last Wednesday of injuries sustained in the clashes.
A 45-year-old man also died last Wednesday after he was stabbed to death by “an unruly mob”, bringing the toll up to 10, local police official HJ Chaudhary said.
“We want to maintain peace, but what the police has done is unpardonable,” Patel told journalists in Ahmedabad last Thursday. He is demanding compensation of Rs3.5 million (£34,652) for victims’ families.
It is the first time troops have been deployed in Gujarat since religious violence in 2002 that left more than 1,000 people dead.