The ongoing agitation by the prosperous Patels in the western Indian state of Gujarat  for quotas in higher education and the public sector underlines a couple of disturbing factors. One, the Narendra Modi model of governance is not working the way it was talked about, promoted and hyped. Two, the policy of quotas (or reservation) for the underprivileged classes of Indian society in colleges and universities, and in the government sector seems counter-productive.

Hardik Patel (C) at a protest rally

Modi, who belongs to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014 — when he and his party were elected with a whopping majority in the federal or parliamentary elections. He is now India’s prime minister.

In fact, for the little over a year that Modi and his BJP (heading an alliance) have been  in power in New Delhi, they have been seemingly  propagating the Gujarat model for  pan India — a system which some have described as dictatorial. In an anthology, Gujarat beyond Gandhi, Mona Mehta and Nalin Mehta write about the “authoritarian model of governmental developmentalism that has come to characterise Gujarat in recent years”.  And perhaps be disliked.

The current Patel stir, led by a young 22-year-old Hardik Patel — who has been attracting unbelievably large crowds in his public rallies — appears to affirm this view and that all is not well with the model.

Otherwise, why would the Patels be so livid? After all — and incredible as it may sound — the Patels have been a highly enterprising and successful entrepreneurial community that has been doing pretty well economically and socially not just in Gujarat but in other countries as well.

The community dominates the pharmaceutical, chemical, medical, plastic, ceramic and diamond business. (Surat in Gujarat is the most important centre in the world after Guangzhou and Shenzhen in China for cutting and polishing diamonds).

A sizeable number of Patels went to the US in the 1960s and the 1970s, took up blue-collar jobs, saved money and bought undervalued or dilapidated properties there turning them into motels or hotels. About 60 per cent of these are owned by Indians — a third of which are Patels.

So why is such a well-to-do group asking for quotas and getting on to the streets to protest? It is more likely that Hardik wants the reservation policy in its entirety to go, rather than get a slice of it for his own ilk.

In a recent interview with The Hindu newspaper, Hardik quipped: “Either free the country from reservation or make everybody a slave of reservation”.

The system of reserving seats in colleges/universities and jobs in government organisations for the economically weaker sections and backward classes (the lowliest of the low among the Hindus, for instance) was an idea which was mooted and implemented in the first years of India’s independence in 1947.

However, since then, the percentage of quotas has been increasing, and more and more groups have become part of this system.

Tavleen Singh writes in The Indian Express:”Today it (reservation) has become such an absurdity that while increasing numbers of Dalits (a backward group of people) are demanding bank loans instead of sops, powerful rural communities are demanding sops. The Patel uprising comes on the back of similar uprisings by Gujars, Jats and Marathas in other states. These are powerful rural castes, but this ridiculous situation has been created by cynical political leaders more interested in vote banks than India’s future. In government jobs, universities, technical colleges and welfare programmes, quotas have become a trigger for caste strife. This is because almost the only people left without a quota are a handful of upper caste Hindus and they bitterly resent this injustice.  (Patels are part of this group.)

“In the Benaras Hindu University, during last year’s election campaign, I met students who said that one reason why they were voting for Narendra Modi was because they believed he was the only political leader who could end ‘aarakshan’ (reservation). They told me that 70 per cent of the seats in their university were reserved and this meant that those who had only the ‘general’ category available had to compete much, much harder. When it comes to medical and engineering colleges, the problem is more serious, since if you are low of caste you can become a doctor or an engineer with half the marks that an upper caste student needs”, Singh adds.

Besides the fact that quotas have led to a qualitative decline in professional skills and expertise — for reservation often precludes talent and merit — the Gujarat model of governance seems flawed, given the Patel resentment.

And what exactly is this model? It is — as some believe — somewhat authoritarian.  The model tends to centralise the administration rather than decentralise and democratise it. There is a strong feeling that the power in India now rests with the prime minister — as it once did with the chief minister of Gujarat.

A nation like India — which effectively is many countries clubbed together, speaking a mind-boggling variety of languages, following vastly differing faiths and eating varied kinds of food — is not easy to rule. On top of this, if the government were not to take this diversity into account and remain rooted in undemocratic methods,   India may well see a lot more disquiet.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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