In the nearly two years since Hardik Patel joined the Congress, the Lok Sabha elections and bypolls to eight Assembly seats have gone by with Gujarat now in the middle of state-wide local body polls. But the youth leader, who rattled the BJP government with the Patidar quota agitation in 2015, feels his party is not using him enough. Its leaders “might be wanting to pull me down”, he says.
Speaking to The Indian Express during a campaign stop at Ravapur in Morbi, Hardik says the Congress’s state leadership did not organise a single public meeting for him ahead of the local body elections. Over the last ten days, he says, he has attended 27 public rallies, all on his own. And, he is sure that if the late Ahmed Patel were alive, the veteran would not have let the BJP gain 219 seats uncontested so far.
“In 2015, the entire results in Gujarat, be it of the taluka, district or nagarpalika, mahanagarpalika, was only because of the (quota) agitation and that the party (Congress) will have to accept… I tell the party leaders time and again that you need to understand the people who have come from the agitation because we are touring. Even today, my tours are constantly on. Not a single one of my tours has been decided by the PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee). Still, I am on my toes because I want to strengthen the party, whether someone else does or not. They (Congress leaders) might be wanting to pull me down, push me and bring me down. Let them, I will stand up again. Because, during the agitation, the BJP would bring me down and I would rise up,” says Hardik, who will complete two years in the Congress on March 12.
“Many times I tell the party that when I joined the Congress, I thought Congress would utilise me. Even there, I feel that my Pradesh high command, the state party in-charge has failed. Organise my meetings, I am ready to do 25 meetings a day. You tell me from today you have to do a 500 km padayatra, assign me something, I tell the party again and again, give me some work,” he says.
On February 21, elections to six municipal corporations were held, all of which were won by the BJP with Congress not winning a single seat in Surat where the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won 27. On February 28, elections to 31 district panchayats, 231 taluka panchayats and 81 municipalities are scheduled to be held.
If the state Congress had involved him more, says Hardik, it could have prevented the blank in Surat. According to him, the party leadership asked him to go to the city for a rally a day before the last day of campaigning on February 19, but he declined as he had tours “planned seven days in advance”. On February 19, the Congress called off its only major rally to be led by state party chief Amit Chavda and AICC guardian leaders Biswaranjan Mohanty and Rajeev Satav, ostensibly after threats of disruption by Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), an organisation Hardik founded and continues to be a member of.
“Had they told me in the beginning that you have to do 25 rallies in Surat, this would not have been the result. The Congress party will have to do atma manthan (introspection) and openly speak up about where they failed or were weak… The 6.5 crore people of Gujarat don’t accept BJP, whether anyone believes or not. But the public wants that if Congress fights, they will vote for it,” he says.
Asked about the void caused by veteran leader Ahmed Patel, who succumbed to Covid-linked complications in November last year, he says: “One thing is clear that the 219 seats that were won uncontested (by BJP) was due to mismanagement. There is no leader in the state who would call and say, ‘Why do you worry?’ Ahmedbhai would have handled such a crisis.”
In 2018, before joining the Congress, Hardik was convicted to two years in jail in a rioting case related to the Patidar agitation in Mehsana, and is currently out on bail. Asked if he would contest elections when he is eligible to, he says: “As a working president, if the party wants to use me throughout the state for campaigning in the 2022 (Assembly) elections, then I don’t want to fight the elections. We want to form the government. I have not come here to do electoral politics, I have come here to form a government. Once that is done, everything else will follow.”
On polls, the 27-year-old believes that the youth of today vote “like in the (US) Presidential elections”. “They only look at Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, they do not have any understanding of politics and the local candidate does not matter to them,” he says.
Asked about the AAP’s performance in Surat and the AIMIM’s entry into Ahmedabad, Hardik says: “If you want to counter all these, come out on the streets and make your heads bloodied. Fight against the people in power, be bathed in blood. Not that you tell the SP (Superintendent of Police), ‘We will walk that much, then you can detain us.’ No. Let the SP do whatever he wants. If you have to march to the Governor’s place, march, be aggressive. If you do seva (service) you will get meva (fruit).”
Hardik’s relevance in local politics is visible at the kisan mahapanchayat in Ravapur on the outskirts of Morbi, the ceramic hub. The slogan that became popular during the Patidar agitation, “Jay Sardar”, rings out as he walks in through the crowd around 30 minutes before the loudspeaker ban at 10 pm Thursday.
Almost immediately, he latches on to two popular current issues. He asks the people whether they would vote for a party that raised petrol rates to Rs 95-100/litre.
“What happened yesterday?” he asks. “The Sardar Patel stadium’s name was changed to Narendra Modi Cricket Stadium. The man who never held a cricket bat… If you only want to lend a name, lend it to say Narendrabhai Free University where our children will study for free…But a stadium built by our tax money, a cricket ground built with our tax, you give your name to it…what kind of justice is this?”
He concludes his speech by invoking the legacy of the Congress and the Independence struggle. “Your vote will go to Subhash Chandra Bose, Sardar Patel, Jawarharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri and…Bhagat Singh. It will go to the party of Indira Gandhi who split Pakistan into two.”
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