In late August, a 22-year-old named Hardik Patel brought the Indian city of Ahmedabad, in the prosperous western state of Gujarat, to a complete halt. He was addressing a rally of people who shared his last name, "Patel," members of a Gujarati caste known as “Patidar” (literally, “landowner”). Half a million people turned out on the streets—a spectacle of public support never before witnessed in Gujarat, even though the state has produced two of modern India’s most popular leaders, Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, the father of the nation, and Narendra Modi, the country’s prime minister since May 2014. Yet the young man responsible for this feat was, until a month ago, completely unknown in Gujarati or Indian politics.
This week Hardik Patel announced the launch of a new political party, the Patel Nav Nirman Sena. He claims to represent the sentiments of his community, the Patels, and Patidars, a caste that makes up about 12 to 13 percent of Gujarat’s population more generally. The Patels are demanding to be included in the state’s program for affirmative action in education and employment, a system of positive discrimination that in India is known as “reservations policy." Reservations in schools, universities, and government jobs are designed to counteract the manifold inequalities historically caused by the caste system. The primary beneficiaries of reservations are supposed to be the groups that are socially the weakest. The Patidars have traditionally been among the most powerful groups in western India, but they claim that the reservation system drastically and unfairly limits their own access to education and jobs.
The Patidars' protest is a worrying development for Modi. The Patidars, both in Gujarat and among the diaspora communities in the United States and elsewhere, have been some of his most enthusiastic supporters. Their protests represent a major obstacle to his economic modernization program and demonstrate that the supposed miracle of economic growth that he conjured as chief minister of Gujarat—which was the centerpiece of his nationwide appeal—may not have been all it appeared to be.
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