In the last nine months since he stepped out of the Lajpore Jail in Surat on bail, even as he remained in exile in Udaipur, Patidar quota leader Hardik Patel has been wooed by all political parties to throw a gauntlet at the BJP. The 23-year-old leader of the self styled Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), who is demanding inclusion of the Patel community under the OBC quota, had hinted at a plunge into politics. After meeting Uttarakhand CM Harish Rawat, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar in Patna, the Shiv Sena is the latest to appropriate him, purportedly to fight assembly elections in Gujarat and win over Gujaratis in Mumbai.
Hardik met Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray at his Mumbai residence on Tuesday. While the parties are keen on joining forces with Hardik, he has not committed to anyone. He has even kept Delhi CM and Aam Aadmi Party convenor Arvind Kejriwal at an arm’s length. Kejriwal has made every move to woo Patidars and has put BJP national president Amit Shah in his cross-hairs just like PAAS. On his last Gujarat visit in October, he met the families of the Patidar youths killed in the 2015 quota clash. Hardik, who has never yet met Kejriwal, took credit for Kejriwal’s smooth tour in Patidar areas and while welcoming him, he warned that PAAS would withdraw support if he did not take up the issue of injustice to Patidars during the clash with police.
While the Shiv Sena enthusiastically revealed its intention to contest around 150 seats in Gujarat, Hardik’s supporters are hesitant about taking a poll plunge. A PAAS leader said, “There is no such plan in place as of now to contest the Gujarat polls with the Shiv Sena or any other party. I do not think that as a group, we are ready for the political plunge, as ours has been a campaign of seeking our rights and throwing the BJP out of power. Hardik wants that too. We are unsure if any political alliance can fulfill this promise.”
For the Patidars and Hardik, the dilemma is to ensure that the momentum of their campaign is sustained as there is diminishing interest from community members on continuing the original protest seeking reservation. It was amply evident from the drastically reduced number of people who were present to welcome Hardik into Gujarat from his exile in Rajasthan, earlier this year, than the crowds that poured out on the streets in July last year, when he was released from jail.
Acknowledging this dwindling enthusiasm, Hardik has held a series of marathon meetings with his core team to resurrect the movement in the heart of the state, and also reach out to the lands where the movement did not create much stir. While Hardik and PAAS are aware that there is no space for a third alternative in the Gujarat electoral scene, “teaching the BJP a lesson” is priority so that the party does not have a cakewalk in the forthcoming elections. For starters, the Patidars have decided a strategy to prop up and support independent Patidar candidates from other parties, except the BJP, in their bastions.
This where the Sena, Congress, or even AAP, could step in. The problem for Hardik is that all his options have limitations. By aligning with the Shiv Sena, Hardik is evaluating if Sena can garner enough Hindu votes in Gujarat to hit the BJP hard. However, the Shiv Sena has no organisational presence in the state since the 1990s. It does not speak much for the party that their tallest leader in the state Raju Risaldar, was a don accused of extortion and over a dozen killings, and was killed in a police encounter in 1993. The party launched a drive in Vadodara to induct new members shortly after Narendra Modi-led BJP came into power in 2014, but received a tepid response even in the strong Maharashtrian bastions of the city.
From outside, it might appear that in Shiv Sena, Hardik has an option aside from the Congress or AAP. But for the Sena to eat into BJP’s inflow of votes –with or without Hardik as its face –it has to overcome the challenge of developing a strong organisation.