On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, Tushar Kadivar was alone in his electronics repair shop in Tankara, a town in Gujarat’s Morbi district. “From the time I was born, I have seen the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] bring development to Gujarat,” said the 21-year-old member of the Patidar caste, who will be voting for the first time when the state goes to polls on December 9. “Of course I want to vote for BJP.”

Ten minutes later, curious onlookers – older Patidars from neighbouring shops – crowded around him. They took over the conversation by lashing out against the BJP and praising Hardik Patel, the young leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, a statewide campaign demanding caste-based reservations for Patidars in higher education and employment.

With a strained expression on his face, Kadivar then altered his stand. “I am not opposed to Hardik Patel, actually. I agree that we need reservations,” he said.

Kadivar’s fear of expressing support for the BJP in front of other Patidars is symbolic of the political polarisation that Hardik Patel’s movement has fuelled in the land-owning caste group in the past two years. Patidars formed the backbone of support for the BJP in the 22 years of the party’s rule in Gujarat, but today, feelings of anti-incumbency are unmistakable among Patidar farmers and small businessmen, particularly in Saurashtra and central Gujarat.

This anti-BJP sentiment, however, has not necessarily translated into proportional support for the Congress. While Hardik Patel has now officially aligned himself with the Congress, several of his key aides from PAAS have joined the BJP since October, and some Patidar voters claim they would rather vote for no party, or NOTA, than opt for Congress.

Young first-time voters of Kadivar’s generation – most of them students and job seekers – have been Hardik Patel’s primary target audience. They are also the generation that has never seen Gujarat before the BJP came to power, and this Assembly election, they will face a choice between the familiar and the unknown.

In Morbi, young Patidars have mixed views about their hopes from the election.

Morbi is the second stop in Scroll.in's reporting series in first-time voters in Gujarat. Graphic: Anand Katakam

‘BJP capable of creating employment’

Morbi, often dubbed as India’s ceramic city, houses an industry of more than 600 ceramic tiles factories worth at least Rs 25,000 crore. The majority of these factories are owned and managed by Patidars, who also own most other businesses, small and large, in Morbi and its surrounding towns.

For Kadivar, a Class 12 dropout from a farming family, being able to set up and run such small businesses is a symbol of the vikas or development that the BJP government brought to Gujarat under Narendra Modi.

“I didn’t want to take up farming because there has been severe water shortage for the past five years, and there is just no money in agriculture,” said Kadivar, whose family has almost given up on its 3 acres of farmland. “But even without going to college, I was able to teach myself how to repair electronics and set up this shop.”

Even though Kadivar is a self-made entrepreneur who did not need any loans or government help to set up his shop, he views his success as a sign of the government’s success. “The BJP is definitely capable of creating employment if people work hard, but I don’t know if the Congress can do that.”

A string of hardware stores owned by Patidars line a shopping complex in Morbi. Photos by Aarefa Johari.

‘Waiting to vote for Congress’

Unlike Kadivar, however, many Patidar youth fleeing Morbi’s dismal agricultural sector have not been able to set up their own businesses. They are either settling for unattractive blue collar work or studying to get coveted government jobs, and their insecurities have been the foundation of Patidar demand for reservations under the Other Backward Classes quota.

In August 2015, when Hardik Patel’s protest rally in Ahmedabad ended in rioting and a police crackdown, Morbi was one of the centres of violence between Patidars, OBC groups and law enforcement forces. In October 2015, when Hardik Patel was pre-emptively detained before a cricket match in Rajkot, riotous Patidar youth in Morbi set three public buses on fire.

Hardik Patel is still able to draw large crowds at his rallies in rural Morbi, as was evident at a PAAS rally in the district on November 29. Meanwhile, some social media users allegations claimed that BJP organisers urged factory owners to shut shop and send their workers to attend a rally by Modi on the same day in Morbi city.

“The BJP just does whatever it wants, without listening to the public,” said 18-year-old Prajesh Desai from Sajanpar village in Morbi’s Tankara constituency. “Modi promised to raise the minimum support price of cotton and to create jobs. Instead he gave us notebandi [demonetisation] and made us stand in line for our own hard-earned money.”

Prajesh Desai outside the eye-wear shop where he works.

The son of a struggling farmer, Desai chose to stop studying after Class 12 and took up a job as a salesman at a small eye-wear shop in Morbi city, where he earns Rs 5,000 a month. “I don’t enjoy my job, but what is the point of studying further if you don’t get a job even afterwards?” said Desai, who claims he knows many Patidar youth who were forced to take up labour or clerical work after studying engineering, because they could not find jobs matching their qualifications in Morbi. “This is why we need reservations.”

At Morbi’s LE Engineering College, 19-year-old Himanshu Patel shares Desai’s anxiety about employment, but has not given up on his education. Himanshu, whose father is a groundnut and cotton farmer, travels 30 km every day from his Bhutkotada village to Morbi city to study engineering at a private college.

“The BJP has done nothing to save agriculture, and without reservations we cannot hope to get government jobs,” said Himanshu, who tries to attend every rally by Hardik Patel and other PAAS leaders in Morbi district. “My brother has been trying to get a constable’s job for many years but he never qualifies, while so many Scheduled Caste boys get the job.”

Technically, Scheduled Castes in Gujarat are given a 15% quota of all seats in public education and employment. Scheduled Tribes get 7.5% of the seats and OBCs get 27%. In common parlance, however, most Patidars use “SC-ST” as a sweeping term for all groups entitled to reservations, and the PAAS movement has led to a lingering resentment for them all.

Himanshu’s friend Mevarsh Patel, a commerce student in Morbi’s OVVIM College, claims he has convinced his entire family about the importance of Hardik Patel’s anti-BJP movement. “I am waiting to vote for Congress and everyone in my family will also do that,” said Mevarsh, who lives in Otala village, 40 km from Morbi. After a few moments’ thought, he added, “Maybe not Congress, if there is another option. We might even vote for Aam Aadmi Party if it puts up a candidate here.”

Mevarsh could not explain why he lacks confidence in the Congress. But political scientist Achyut Yagnik believes this Patidar aversion towards the party dates back to the 1980s, when Congress chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki nurtured the “KHAM” vote bank - Kshyatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims - which excluded the Patidars. “There has been an anti-Congress sentiment among Patidars since then, and the younger generation has inherited this tendency from their elders,” said Yagnik.

Himanshu and Mevarsh Patel travel from rural Morbi to attend college in the city.

‘People are just swayed by Hardik’

Among Patidar youth who have grown up in the more urban parts of Morbi, there is a wider acceptance of the state’s BJP government, even as there is respect for Hardik Patel.

“Hardik is right – I have seen SC students get admission into colleges with low marks while Patidar students get left behind even if they score well,” said Komal Patel, 19, a commerce student whose father runs an electronics business in Morbi. “But I can only decide whom I will vote for at the last minute, depending on which parties support my community in the last few days before the election.”

Parth Nakrani and Ravi Sanandiya, 19-year-old sons of ceramic tiles factory owners, have already made their electoral choice in favour of BJP. “The government may have rolled out demonetisation and GST [Goods and Services Tax] in a hurry, but it only affected us for a short time and everything is back to normal now,” said Nakrani, who studies commerce with Sanandiya and is preparing to take over the family business he will inherit after graduating.

Parth Nakrani and Ravi Sanandiya are sons of ceramic tiles factory owners.

According to Sanandiya, the aggressive ways of Hardik Patel’s movement are inappropriate even if his demand for reservations may be justified. “Right now people are just swayed by Hardik. But most Patidars are doing well financially, and Modi has done good work, so eventually everyone will vote for BJP no matter what they may claim,” he said.

In Tankara, when Tushar Kadivar is out of earshot of his Patidar neighbours, he is confident that he is not swayed by Hardik Patel’s movement. “I don’t oppose the demand for Patidar reservations, but that does not mean we should vote for Congress,” he said. “Not everyone in my family thinks like me, but I am going to vote for Modi.”