Updated: May 21, 2022 12:28:41 pm
The election arena in Gujarat has just revved up, mainly on account of two Patidars – Hardik Patel and Naresh Patel – with bets being placed on their next course of action.
On May 18, Hardik, the leader who rose from the Patidar quota agitation, resigned from the Congress after three years, praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. A day later, top Gujarat Congress leaders met Naresh Patel, industrialist and chairman of the Shree Khodaldham Trust (SKT).
The BJP, which has been welcoming almost every rank of Congress defectors, from municipal corporators to MLAs, has, surprisingly, been quiet about Hardik though he ticks all the boxes for the party — he is young, is a Patidar, aggressive, was close to the Gandhis, has reiterated that he is a “devout Hindu” and spoken out in favour of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, the abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
What stands between Hardik and the BJP are the criminal cases against Patidars protesters, stemming from the 2015 agitation, which are yet to be withdrawn, two of them against Hardik under the sedition law. Of the total 246 cases, the BJP government has moved to withdraw only 10. This will remain a bone of contention for the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), the organisation that Hardik founded to seek OBC quota for the community. The 2015 protests had rattled the then BJP government under chief minister Anandiben Patel.
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Dharmik Malaviya, co-convenor of PAAS and in charge of the SKT Surat unit, said that if Hardik joins the BJP, “it will be his responsibility to ensure that the cases are withdrawn”.
A senior BJP leader told The Indian Express, “Without doubt, 2017 was our toughest election in the last two decades. There were these three youths — Hardik, Alpesh (Thakor) and Jignesh (Mevani) — on whose shoulders Congress kept a gun and fought the elections on caste lines, but now the atmosphere is in our favour.”
The 2015 quota agitation remains, by far, the biggest uprising of the Patidar community, especially its youth, bringing together the community’s two rival sub-groups, the Kadvas and Leuvas. While Hardik is a Kadva Patidar, Naresh, a Leuva, heads the Khodaldham temple trust of the sub-group’s patron deity, Ma Khodal.
Asked about the possibility of Hardik joining the BJP, the senior leader who has been a state minister said, “He may have had a following as fairy tales begin, once upon a time… but now he has lost ground.”
Leaders in the BJP are also wary that Hardik’s entry would cause discomfiture in the ranks. The party is already grappling with discontent within after having taken in several defectors from the Congress.
Gopal Italia, a former PAAS leader who is Gujarat president of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), had invited Hardik to join the party when the Patidar leader first began voicing his grievance against the Congress leadership. Many other PAAS members such as Nikhil Savani had joined the Congress with Hardik, but quit to join AAP.
Meanwhile, Reshma Patel, who heads the women’s wing of the Nationalist Congress Party in Gujarat, suggested that Hardik join her party.
However, it’s not clear how the AAP leadership would view Hardik’s comment in favour of business magnates “Adani-Ambani” at the May 19 press conference, a day after he resigned. “Adani and Ambani have become rich with their hard work. And in Gujarat, even a smallest person or a smallest entrepreneur would dream to be Adani or Ambani… Instead of that, we have been listening to Congress leaders abusing Adani-Ambani for the past seven years,” he had said.
The Congress, on the other hand, has kept its doors open for Naresh Patel, the influential Leuva Patidar leader and Rajkot-based industrialist, but the much anticipated entry has not happened yet.
Naresh, who had said in March that the outcome of a survey by committees of the SKT would decide his entry into politics, has not yet made up his mind about taking the plunge. On April 23, after meeting poll strategist Prashant Kishor, Naresh had said he would announce his decision about joining politics on May 15. However, Kishor’s refusal on April 26 of the Congress’s offer to him seems to have halted Naresh’s move.
Naresh had told media persons after his meeting with Kishor, “I am also very confused…I am answerable to you and the society…. I don’t want to take a hasty decision and get trapped”.
A top Congress leader claimed Hardik became “insecure” once the Congress began to talk to Naresh. “Once we approached Naresh Patel, Hardik saw his space shrinking and felt insecure,” said this leader.
However, early March, Hardik had written to Naresh as a “Congress worker”, asking him to join politics and become the “voice of the Patidars”.
Naresh has also denied speculation that his entry into the Congress depended on Hardik’s exit.
However, a day after Hardik’s resignation, Congress’s AICC general secretary in-charge of Gujarat, Raghu Sharma, met Naresh at his Rajkot farmhouse for two hours, triggering another round of speculation that the party is keen to take him.
Sources say Naresh may not be inclined to join the BJP, but he wants the Congress to agree “to certain conditions” before he joins. Party sources say he is expected to decide by “next week”
The uncertainty over the two Patidar leaders continues. Will they, won’t they?
Patidar politics: Traditional BJP voters who fell out over 2015 protests
Patidars constitute over a sixth of Gujarat’s population of 6.5 crore. While they are known to have agrarian roots, many of them, especially those from Saurashtra, are leading businessmen. Traditionally BJP supporters, the Patidars are known to be a close-knit community whose political and social preferences are usually dictated by their leaders.
In the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections, two years into the Patidar agitation, it is believed that the community vented its anger at the BJP by voting against it as a unified force, leading to the Congress winning 77 of 182 seats – its highest tally since the BJP came to power in the state. In the local body elections last year, the Patidars are said to have swung the votes in favour of the AAP in Surat, giving the BJP a scare in the constituency of its state chief C R Paatil. With 27 seats, the AAP is now the main Opposition party in the Surat corporation. This was largely attributed to the PAAS campaigning against the BJP and the Congress in Surat – the epicentre of the Patidar agitation.
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