Over 4.5 lakh people turned up in Surat on Monday as Hardik Patel led his latest rally, demanding OBC status for the Patels — his biggest gathering so far. It has taken the 21-year-old in jeans, stubble and carefully dishevelled hair a little over a month to get here, and to the title of ‘Patidar Hriday Samrat’.
If that reminds Gujarat of another leader, Hardik isn’t letting that worry him.
A video on Hardik released recently by an organisation formed by him makes no attempt to hide the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel images or the ‘Loh Purush’ invocations, while Shivaji and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose also make an appearance.
For the rest, the video lets a roaring lion and a gun resting on Hardik’s shoulder do the talking. He emerges from raging flames and shattering glass, and amid firecrackers, and is showered with rose petals. The organisation is called the Sardar Patel Sevadal.
Till four years ago, Hardik, the son of BJP worker Bharatbhai Patel, headed the Sevadal, formed by him as a Patidar social group in Mehsana in 2004 (Patidar is the name of the community, and they use the surname Patels). A commerce student, Hardik graduated from Sahajanand College in Ahmedabad three years ago and ran a business of supplying water to commercial establishments for a short while.
He left the business to a partner to take on the leadership of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, an offshoot of the Sardar Patel Sevadal, in July. Since then, from the ages of 20 to 70, the Patels have rallied behind him in the demand that a community well known for its wealth and political clout in the state needs reservations in government jobs and colleges. Hardik has been drawing crowds in both urban and rural centres.
Last week, the Gujarat government appointed a six-minister panel headed by Health Minister Nitin Patel to look into the demand.
Chief Minister Anandiben Patel herself has six Patel ministers in her Cabinet, but is feeling the heat. And the BJP isn’t the only one looking for an explanation for the swift emergence of the 21-year-old. The Congress and BJP have both accused the other of propping him up, while Hardik claims he is apolitical.
“Even today my father is a staunch supporter of the BJP. That does not, however, make me a political person,” he told The Indian Express. “Our agitation is not against Anandiben… It is against the system. Anandiben happens to be the CM. If the Congress were in the government, our demand would remain the same.”
When anonymous messages claiming his proximity to Congress MLA Tejshree Patel surfaced, Hardik was quick to release his photographs with BJP vice-president Purshottam Rupala and Minister of State for Home Rajnikant Patel.
His clip with VHP leader Pravin Togadia, who is not a favourite with the BJP in the state, also raised eyebrows. Hardik says, “I met Togadiaji some eight months back at Viramgam, when he had come to attend a function. I have not spoken to him after that.”
This was in Mehsana, a place of particular significance for the BJP. It is the home district of not just Anandiben but also Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
Hardik says he started the Sardar Patel Sevadal in 2011 for the protection of the Patidars. According to him, the Patidar women would face a lot of harassment and eve-teasing and his group came to their rescue. “Many youths also approached us about being unable to get admissions in government colleges and government jobs despite good scores.”
It was at a 2012 meeting in Kanpur of the Sardar Patel Mahasabha, an Uttar Pradesh-based group of Patels across India, that the Sevadal first started talking about a place in the reservation system.
“Unlike Gujarat, the Patels in other states are known by different surnames — like Kurmis, who are classified as OBC or SC, and are in big numbers in government,” Hardik says.
In July, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti came into being. The Samiti contests the image of the Patels as influential and prosperous in the state, citing suicides by farmers belonging to the community. The Patels are involved in agriculture in significant numbers.
So far the Samiti has not approached an OBC commission headed by retired justice Sugnya Bhatt that is authorised to grant the status. “We want the government to first recommend our demand,” says Hardik, who has been touring the state the past month.
Clearly delighted at the turnout at the Surat rally, permission for which was delayed by the state government, Hardik announced he will get a 40 lakh crowd in the Ahmedabad Patidar rally on August 25.
“Reservation is our right,” he says. “First we follow the path shown by Gandhiji and Sardar Patel but, if required, we can become Bhagat Singh too.”