Six months after his ‘banishment’ to effect a bail condition in the sedition cases against him, Patidar quota stir leader Hardik Patel has returned to a Gujarat which no longer has a chief minister from his community, and to a government as old as his absence from the state that is bending over backwards to please social sections that matter to ensure a comeback for the BJP in the Assembly elections later this year.
As for Hardik, the reception he got at Ratanpur, on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border on Tuesday was grand, with supporters perched on top of a long line of cars, and circulating his photos tagged with a message “Gabbar’s entry in Gujarat”, and turning into a responsive crowd at the ‘hunkar rally’ in Himmatnagar. But it was no match to the crowds that had gathered to receive him on his release from Lajpore Jail in Surat on July 15, some following him till he exited the state.
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With his warcry, calling for a dangal (wrestling duel) with BJP-ruled Gujarat government, the self-styled convenor of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) declared that his 18-month struggle for quota has only made him stronger. Hardik’s attack, though continued to remain silent about who PAAS’s alleged “General Dyer” was, responsible for the killing of the Patidars in police action following the August 2015 rally in Ahmedabad.
If the PAAS leader left Gujarat complaining that the then Anandiben Patel government had taken immediate action on the policemen involved in the assault on Dalits in Una, but did nothing about those allegedly involved in the “killing” of Patidars, he was returning to a stage of with Una Dalit Andolan Samiti (UDALS) leader Jignesh Mevani. Mevani made it clear that he did not mind joining hands with community leaders like Hardik to fight for people’s issues.
The three emerging youth leaders of Gujarat — Hardik, Mevani and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor — have shown signs of joining hands, although Thakor has not yet reacted to Hardik’s return. Hardik and Mevani had openly supported Thakor’s anti-liquor campaign in Gujarat that eventually forced the state government to amend the Prohibition Act and make it stricter. Now, it is to be seen to what extent the three come close to each other.
The Vijay Rupani government’s attention to the three community leaders appears to be more of a math – commensurate to their numbers in the state. OBC’s are nearly 50 per cent while Patidars are between 12-14 per cent and Dalits are only seven per cent of the population.
Part of the waning of crowds at the Hardik reception is being blamed on the simultaneous hosting of the Khodaldham movement by Leuva Patidars across the state and some of the Patidar crowd diverting towards this ostentatious counterpart, which found support from community leaders from the Congress and the BJP. Former CM Keshubhai Patel, too chose to cold shoulder Hardik.
Yet, with Hardik planning a Surat rally on Thursday and a tour of the state soon after, the BJP has reason to be worried. His comeback has been welcomed by the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and even Janata Dal United led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar– all three have been wooing Hardik, who they think is a game changer in Gujarat’s politics.
The BJP, meanwhile, is keeping a close watch on Hardik’s movement. Huge police force was deployed in Himmatnagar and the State Intelligence Bureau was very active during the event. In fact, DIG R B Brahmbhatt was present at the community premise where the gathering took place.
Hardik’s supporters have during his absence from the state successfully disrupted a public meeting by wealthy Patidar leaders of Surat to felicitate BJP national president Amit Shah causing embarrassment to the BJP. And the party which has been in power in Gujarat for nearly two decades has consciously appeased Patidars by appointing Nitin Patel as deputy CM, Jitu Vaghani — a Patidar from Saurashtra — as state unit president and Rutvij Patel as the chief of its state youth wing. These are being seen as bids to cut Hardik’s influence on the Patidar community and youth.
Sources also say that while keeping a section of its Patidar vote bank safe through such measures, Gujarat BJP is planning to garner OBC votes by wooing Alpesh Thakor.
The state government also held dialogues with PAAS conveners over the issue of reservation, though there has been no progress since December 8 when they last met Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel. In fact, during his address at Himmatnagar, Hardik said they gave documentary evidence of reservation in other states, but still there is no reply from the government.
What the BJP should worry about is that Hardik’s Himmatnagar meet was an impressive show notwithstanding the fact that a huge Patidar population was busy in Kagvad for the idol installation ceremony of the Patidar’s socio-religious Khodaldham Trust. Saurashtra, North Gujarat and Surat have remained the bastions of PAAS under the leadership of Hardik.
At Himmatnagar, Hardik changed his focus a bit and said reservation for Patidars was his primary goal, while he also wanted to liberate people from the atmosphere of fear.
Hardik who used to seek strict action against all police officials who launched action on Patidars at GMDC Ground in Ahmedabad on August 25, 2015, said he could understand that police officials were only following orders and that the real villain was the ‘General Dyer’ who ordered police action. He, in fact, also raked up the issue of fix wage employees and asked policemen to join him in the fight against the BJP government as they too were victims of the policy.
Hardik has also announced his intention to move around Gujarat villages to ‘awaken people’ and to prepare them for the dangal. Close aides said he will begin meeting people from January 27 from Patan in North Gujarat. That would be the beginning of the dangal.
Meanwhile, parallels are being drawn of Hardik with the ‘exile’ of Amit Shah from Gujarat after his bail in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, following which his stature and influence in the BJP rose. The critical difference is that Shah has been discharged from this case, while Patel continues to be accused of sedition. Which is why he plays the “age” card and said, even if he was sent to jail on a life term for 14 years, he would be 37 years old when free.