For months, the media has been speculating about the forces that may be driving the Patel agitation that has forced Gujarat's Bharatiya Janata Party government to beg for a halt. In recent weeks, some personalities who could provide energy for the campaign for reservations for government jobs and seats in educational institutions have stepped forward to express open support for the young protestors.

On Monday, shortly before 22-year-old community leader Hardik Patel of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti was to discuss his demands with Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, he had a meeting with Keshubhai Patel, who lost his chief ministerial chair to Narendra Modi in 2001. Hardik Patel bent down to touch Keshubhai Patel's feet, and was given words of encouragement in return.

Earlier this month, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Toghadia and former minister Gordhan Jhadaphia, both of whom are members of the Patel community as well as open Modi baiters, threw their weight behind the campaign.

Taking a beating

Step by every baby step, the agitating Patel youngsters have brought Chief Minister Anandiben Patel to her knees. A Patel community representative herself and a protégé of her predecessor, Prime Minister Modi, Anandiben Patel's image has taken a battering as the agitators have pressed forward with their demand for Patels to be included in the Other Backward Classes category that would allow them to benefit from reservations in jobs and education.

Last week, Hardik Patel decided to take the pressure up a notch by announcing a “reverse” Dandi yatra, starting from the place where Mahatma Gandhi began his famous Salt March and ending at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. But he called off the gesture following the intervention of state energy minister Saurabh Patel, who assured him that the government would consider the agitators’ demands sympathetically.

However, Monday's meeting hit a bump even before it could start.

Hardik Patel and his team wanted 144 representatives of various Patel sub-groups to be present at the negotiations with Chief Minister Patel. The meeting was scheduled for 4.30 pm but there was a two-hour stalemate. Eventually , the chief minister's secretariat agreed to an initial closed-door meeting with 20 leaders, followed by a meeting with all the representiatves on the lawns of her official residence of in Gandhinagar.

Those present at the closed-door meeting included both Hardik Patel of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti  as well as Lalji Patel, the convenor of the rival Sardar Patel group. The two men buried the hatchet at an event in Ahmedabad on Sunday after Hardik Patel called off his Dandi march. As expected, the Patel leaders sought action against police officials who had allegedly committed atrocities on some community members in the hours following their massive Patel rally in Ahmedabad on August 25. From the statements of Hardik Patel and government spokesman and senior minister Nitin Patel, who heads the committee to look into the Patel issues, it was decided to withdraw the cases filed against the agitators, though the government has sought ten days to do so.

By the time, Prime Minister Modi would have returned from his tour to United States where NRI Patels are expected to raise the reservation demand and stage a demonstration before him. The Patel diaspora is a significant funder of the BJP.

Despite the lengthy meeting, Hardik Patel announced around 10.15 pm that he would now set off on his Dandi yatra on September 19. It will now be called an Ekta Yatra, or march of unity. The community agitation will continue till all its demands are met, he said.

Key demands

"Our first demand is immediate suspension of all the policemen, including constables, inspectors and superintendent of police, for wanton violence on innocent citizens without any provocation resulting in the death of nine persons” after the August 25 rally, he said. “Secondly, the government should give adequate compensation to the families of those killed." Patel also demanded an independent inquiry to establish who ordered the police lathicharge on the crowds at the August 25 rally.

Over the past months, the Patels have held massive rallies in Gujarat’s diamond capital Surat, where they control the trade that cuts and polishes 80% of the gems exported from India, and in the commercial hub of Ahmedabad, where the community dominates the real-estate industry. But they also made a strategic decision to move a formal application to be included in the OBC category.

As many as 40 BJP MLAs in the 182-member state assembly belong to the Patel community, besides four ministers and the chief minister herself. Making capital of this fact, Hardik Patel and his troops have been holding protest demonstrations against the Patel BJP MLAs, MPs and ministers compelling them to cancel their public meetings in various towns across north and central Gujarat.

Darshan Desai is Editor, Development News Network and Director, Centre for Media Research, Training and Advocacy.