Few case studies are as revelatory of both the vigour and the perversity of Indian democracy as the mass protests in the past week by the influential Patel (or Patidar) community in the western state of Gujarat, which has shaken the ruling politicians of both state and centre.
The Patels - a populous and reasonably prosperous caste comprising about one in every eight people in Gujarat - are demanding reservations for members of the community in government educational institutions and government jobs.
What is more surprising is the mechanism by which they want the ratification of such a demand: They want the state to recognise them as part of the "other backward classes" (OBCs) of India, a label of relatively recent - and political - origin for groups in India who are socially and economically disadvantageous.
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Unsurprisingly, the Patel protests have prompted derision in many parts of India.
For among the Indian people of the diaspora, perhaps no name is as common - from New York to Nairobi - as that of the entrepreneurial and mercantile Patels.
Nor were the Patels lacking in political representation before the recent mass movement, led by an impassioned but unformed 23-year-old named Hardik Patel.
In Gujarat itself, the chief minister, Anandiben Patel, hails from the Patel community, as do several ministers in her government.
Equality for groups
So, why should such a group require special help from the resource-scarce state?
The answer lies not in any grievance or disability specific to the Patels, but rather in the unfolding logic of affirmative action practised by the Indian state for nearly 70 years. It also lies in the particular - and in some senses paradoxical - vocabulary of Indian democracy, which has come to be a site of bargaining and contestation - not so much for the political equality of "individuals", as democracy theoretically should be - but for the political equality of "groups".
When the Indian constitution was being written between the years 1947 and 1950, it became clear to the founding fathers of the new Indian state that India could hardly call itself a democracy - or even call some of its people citizens - if it did not work out some mechanism to diminish the massive social, economic and indeed psychological disabilities of the electorate.
In a moral and material universe with these strange fault lines established by the slowly ramifying logic of identity-based politics, it is not completely absurd that a community such as the Patels of Gujarat are asking either that the government include them under the ambit of reservations or dismantle the system of reservations altogether.
Many of these disabilities are rooted in the ancient hierarchical structures and prejudices of the caste system.
It was therefore decided that a system of reservations in government institutions amounting to 23 percent of the total would be put into place for the untouchables ("scheduled castes" or SCs) and tribals ("scheduled tribes" or STs), who had suffered the greatest disadvantages in the traditional social order.
This system of affirmative action was supposed to last only a decade - until 1960 - but, of course, nothing of the sort happened.
Instead - and in this might be seen both positive and negative as a result of the deliberate and unintended consequences of the policy - over the decades, the beneficiaries of reservation not only claimed what was offered by the state, but also organised themselves politically on caste-based platforms.
And at the same time, it became apparent that there were many other disadvantageous communities in India who were not covered by the old policy and were now indignant that they found themselves in a kind of limbo between the higher castes and the beneficiaries of affirmative action.
A review of the system in the 1980s led to the emergence of a vast new, but nebulous, category called the "other backward classes" and the extension of another 27 percent of posts in the government to be reserved for OBCs.
Affirmative action was going nowhere; rather, it was expanding its reach and now comprised a full 50 percent of all government-managed opportunities.
In the following quarter-century, the OBC has become a favourite word of the political classes who have seen it as a way of providing political patronage to entire communities for electoral gain.
Simultaneously, there has been much resentment in India among youth belonging to the middle and higher castes that they themselves are now being marginalised, even if meritorious, and squeezed out of a system where it is no longer privileged-caste status, but coming from a disadvantageous caste, that allows access to social goods.
|Tens of thousands of protesters from Gujarat's Patel community participated in the rally in Ahmadabad [AP]
In fact, in a time of greater social mobility and sudden economic instability, previously prosperous communities too may suddenly find themselves facing hardships, as many Patels do because of the crisis in Indian agriculture and a shortage of opportunities in the private sector.
The natural strategy in such a world is for the more prosperous communities to also mobilise their caste solidarity for reservations from the state, and to promise their votes en masse to political parties who support their claims.
Twelve percent of the electorate, which is what the Patels are in Gujarat, is not a small number.
In a moral and material universe, with these strange faultlines established by the slowly ramifying logic of identity-based politics, it is not completely absurd that a community such as the Patels of Gujarat are asking either that the government include them under the ambit of reservations or dismantle the system of reservations altogether.
Banal though it may seem on its own terms, what the Patel protests reveal is that some instruments of social justice that are more nuanced, carefully targeted, and evidence-based than a quota system - based unidimensionally on caste - will soon be required in India.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and columnist based in New Delhi. His work on Indian politics appears regularly on Bloomberg View and in The Caravan.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
Source: Al Jazeera