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What Hardik Patel’s exit from Congress and entry into BJP says about Gujarat’s politics

Sharik Laliwala and Christophe Jaffrelot write: It is another symptom of the steady erosion of ideological cleavages as well as the hegemony of Hindu nationalism

Written by Sharik Laliwala , Christophe Jaffrelot |
Updated: June 30, 2022 8:37:16 am
Patidar leader Hardik Patel joins BJP at 'Kamalam', BJP headquarters, in Gandhinagar. (File)

After months of voicing his concerns to the Congress, Hardik Patel has finally left the Grand Old Party and turned towards the BJP. In Gujarat, where political actors routinely and without any discomfort shift allegiances between the BJP and Congress, this is no great news. It is another symptom of the steady erosion of ideological cleavages as well as the hegemony of Hindu nationalism in Indian politics.

Hardik Patel began his journey as a quota activist for Patels in 2015 as a young, vocal anti-BJP figure. In the Gujarat Congress, as the party’s working president, he moderated his discourse on the quota question, especially after the introduction of the 10 per cent quota for Patels under the economically weaker sections reservation in 2019, and tried to project himself as a youth icon and a kisan leader. This was an interesting proposition in a land of urban politics where the position of a kisan leader has been vacant for decades.

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Over the last few months, Hardik has redefined himself again — as a Hindu nationalist. He has quite enthusiastically supported the building of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, thrown his weight behind the implementation of the CAA-NRC — the amended citizenship laws that take India on the path of a de jure Hindu Rashtra — and spoken on the mistreatment of Hindus and Patel leaders at the hands of the Congress. For a man who had started his public career by praising Bal Thackeray, this new discourse marks a return to the roots.

Moreover, Hardik Patel has shunned the progressive outlook regarding caste in his politics as well as his distrust of crony capitalism. He blamed the Congress for casteism in his resignation letter from the party. In his recent interviews, he has attacked the 1980s strategy of Congress — the amalgamation of Kshatriya, Harijan (Dalit), Adivasi, and Muslim (KHAM) votes under the leadership of Gujarat’s first OBC chief minister, Madhavsinh Solanki. And he praised the two major industrialists of Gujarat, Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani.

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Patel’s trajectory epitomises the blurring of ideological frontiers in Indian politics today and, more than that, the growing opportunism of politicians whom voters cannot now trust easily when they commit themselves to principles and great causes.

While Hardik Patel’s shift to the BJP may weaken the Congress in rural Gujarat, the party’s attractiveness to Patel voters in that part of the state in 2017 did not result only — nor even mainly — from his influence. Generally seen as the party of Dalits, OBCs, tribals and Muslims since the 1980s, the Congress — which was largely built by Vallabhbhai Patel in the region — again reached out to Patels after more than 50 years. In the Saurashtra peninsula, the Congress won 2/3rds of the 48 assembly seats in 2017, almost double its tally in 2012. The party even became a spokesperson for rural Patidars in the state as 14 of its 15 Patel MLAs belonged to rural constituencies.

Hardik Patel’s shift to the BJP will help the party recover in the rural part of the state – but will it be enough? Rural Patels are still at the receiving end of the economic crisis that is affecting agriculture. As we have highlighted in our writings before, including in Sharik Laliwala’s paper on BJP ministers’ social profiles in the Studies in Indian Politics, the pro-reservation call by Patels, who had opposed the granting of quota to OBCs in the 1980s, reflects the “jobless growth” trajectory of a highly urban-industrial Gujarat, along with increasing rural poverty. Daily wage rates in rural Gujarat are frozen. In terms of rural poverty, Gujarat ranked ninth out of 17 large states in India in 2011-12, a drop of four ranks from its position in 1993-94. Patels are badly divided along class lines, something that Christophe Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan A’s research showcases: The richest 20 per cent among Patels cornered 61.4 per cent of the community’s income in 2011-12, whereas the poorest 20 per cent got only 2.8 per cent, which means that they are increasingly lagging behind the OBCs and even Dalits.

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In fact, the mean income of the first quintile of Patels (Rs 6,978) was almost half the mean income of the second quintile of the SCs (Rs 11,411) in 2011-12. And the situation is worse in some parts of the state like Saurashtra, where the water from the Narmada river is yet to reach for irrigation purposes. These trends expose the futility of treating urban and rural Patels in the same way.

The BJP has remained steadfastly behind urban-industrial interests, particularly amongst Patels. For instance, the present CM, Bhupendra Patel, otherwise a novice in Gujarati politics, belongs to an urban constituency, just like the party’s old Patel guard — Anandiben Patel, Nitin Patel, Kaushik Patel, Saurabh Patel, et al.

The Congress may not have any Patel face left but it may continue to capitalise on the resentment of the Gujarat peasantry and rekindle its strategy by uniting those who are losing out among the villagers in the state. In parallel, the AAP offensive in Gujarat may cut into the urban vote bank of the BJP — and this is probably one of the reasons why the ruling party needed to capture a Patel rural leader even more urgently this year.

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The BJP now gets one. But for Hardik Patel, joining the BJP makes him lose his unique position, especially since today’s BJP does not like leaders with their own mass base. This feature can be seen in the selection of Bhupendra Patel as the CM, who was clueless about his appointment till the very last. In fact, in his cabinet, everyone is a first-time minister.

Laliwala is an independent scholar on politics and history of Gujarat; Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, and professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London

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First published on: 30-06-2022 at 04:00:43 am
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