Not far from where Hardik Patel spoke to Rajkot on a chilly winter evening last month, there happens to be a paan shop. It does have a name, but it never gets mentioned. The locals love calling it the ‘Honeymoon Paan Centre’. It’s an inside joke that gets repeated on most nights when the neighbourhood men drop by for their post-dinner chew.
The day Hardik expressed his anger about the plight of Patidars and their mass exodus to the cities, he killed the joke. It was no longer funny to take a dig at the ever-changing owners of the notorious ‘Honeymoon Paan Shop’. Suddenly, it seemed evil to find humour in a social tragedy. Hardik had opened the eyes of the paan-addicts.
Now, the back story. Nana Mava, Hardik’s place of choice in Rajkot, is a Patidar hub of sorts. It’s also the port where the fresh-off-the-boat Patels first land from interior Saurashtra. Of late, this has been the post-marriage destination for many young Patel couples.
Increasingly, Patidar girls aren’t willing to stay in villages. The move to the city is a primary condition on the pre-nuptial. However, the dream of a new home and new life in the city of malls and multiplexes is often short-lived. Jobs aren’t easy. But the city that spends most evenings at corner shops can always do with one more paan shop.
Over to Hasmukh Pipalia, the man they call ‘Narad’ among his vast circle of friends and acquaintances. He is a Patidar, a Hardik sceptic, a reliable gossip-monger and a keen observer of his community’s sub-culture. He also works at a cooperative bank.
“It’s getting impossible for the village boys to get married. No girl is willing to be part of a farming family. It’s too much back-breaking work. So the family rents a paan place in Rajkot once the boy is of marriageable age. This helps them get a match,” says Pipalia. Many a time things don’t work out; the village boy fails to survive the big bad city. As has been the case with several owners of the jinxed ‘Honeymoon Paan Shop’, they return home. Only for the next Patel to take his place and try his luck.
So when Hardik asked for reservations in government jobs for Patidars, he had touched a raw nerve. For the Patel boys, and the girls, this sounded like a better plan for their move to the city. Hardik, with his untucked polyester shirt and unbranded jeans, looked just like them and spoke their language too. He could easily pass off as one of the many young boys — all with that unkempt thick mop of hair with side parting — seen in state transport buses on NH-8A.
A government teacher in Rajkot, who doesn’t want to be named, makes it clear within minutes why he wants “change”. He wanted to join Hardik, but his job didn’t allow him. However, he did his bit for the Patel cause, he says. “I didn’t spare any chance to undermine this government. Say if I was at a railway crossing and my scooter was between a number of vehicles, I would just start ranting against the BJP. I realised that soon others would join. Hardik wanted us to do this,” he says.
The teacher adds that he knows that constitutionally it’s not possible to give reservations to Patels and is sure the Congress wouldn’t give what Hardik wants. But still, he says, he will take his chance. “It’s our pride that’s been hurt. After Keshubhai Patel (the former BJP chief minister), we have been sidelined. Our issues have been blatantly avoided by politicians. If the BJP wins now, we will become irrelevant.”
However, if Hardik was just about reservations, he would have been reduced to a youth leader with some traction on college campuses. He wouldn’t have become an important election ‘factor’ or the biggest hope for the country’s oldest political party.
Travelling across Saurashtra, a region with vast Patidar pockets, the GenNext Patel leader comes across as a medium who gave voice to the angst of a very influential community. They say Hardik happened because of farmers’ distress and a feeling of political marginalisation among the once-powerful Patels. He is also a product of a social churning.
About 100 km from Rajkot, heading in the direction of the coast, is Jamjodhpur. It’s a Patidar-dominated land surrounded by endless acres of cotton fields. The sun is out, the Cyclone Ockhi fears are behind and the contrast of the white fluffy fibre over the dried brown boll is sparkling. The ginning mill on the highway is busy. Tractors with bulging cotton piles, covered by plastic, are lining up for being weighed on the scale. They look like overweight gym freshers on their first day.
These days cotton rates are being discussed in election rallies and on TV debates. For the record, they are about Rs 855 for 20 kg. The rate used to be Rs 1,400 once, when the Congress was in power at the Centre. The ginning lobby says that the cotton rates have several variables, the Rs 1,400 high was because of China’s unprecedented interest in the fibre. But farmers aren’t ready to buy the argument. They want Rs 1,400 again, with or without China.
Jamjodhpur is also known for ganthiyas, a staple for Patels. Around here, there is no time or occasion to eat this deep-fried snack made of besan. They usually have ganthiyas thrice a day. It’s noon, the perfect time for the post-breakfast, pre-lunch feed. A one-time ginning worker, Hemendrabhai, has just dipped one piping hot ganthiya into curd — don’t try it at home — and is ready to talk.
He is sympathetic to the farmer. “Farming is really getting tough. It is very tough to break even. Unless one does real hard work, it’s impossible,” Hemendrabhai says. To explain the mathematics, he asks for a pen, clears the ganthiya from a newspaper, and flips it to make a calculation, ignoring the grease.
“These days, people outsource farming. They give it to labourers promising them one-third of the agriculture income,” he says. “Now suppose on an average you earn Rs 5 to 7 lakh per year, of this, Rs 2 lakh will go to the labourers, Rs 2 lakh for seeds and insecticides. So what are you left with? Only about Rs 2 to 3 lakh.”
He pauses and mouths a ganthiya, curd dripping on the zeroes on the paper, as you wait for him to deliver the punchline. “Your land is worth Rs 1 crore and all you are getting is Rs 2 lakh. That’s 2 per cent, much less than a savings account interest,” he says. No self-respecting Gujarati is happy to earn less than savings account interest.
Inside the market-yard in Jamjodhpur, Vinaybhai, a Kadva Patidar, has mounted himself on tuver daal sacks. (There are two types of Patidars — Kadva and Leuva).
He is the owner of 60 bighas of farmland, where he grows cotton and groundnut. Long back, he wanted to join the Army. While in school, he went for a test at Jamnagar. They were all asked to jump across a wide pit. Every aspirant walked to the pit but not Vinaybhai. He was fastest, and the fittest, in his village. He could fly over any pit. He jumped way beyond the pit. He was drafted. The father was fine but his school teacher wasn’t. He objected that the young boy was too much of a rebel to be in the Army. “He was right. If someone told me to turn left, I would go right. I didn’t like listening to anyone,” Vinaybhai says.
That’s the reason he doesn’t want to join the exodus; he is against sending his 16-year-old son to the city for good. “He is studying for an electrical diploma. That’s how he will become more social and smart. But I want him to return. I have taught him farming and made him understand the importance of it,” says the man who has doubled his land holding since the time he inherited it 20 years back.
Vinaybhai, a sturdy man with a child-like laugh, argues that in case one is willing to work hard, farming can be very profitable. “I have 8 to 10 workers. I pay them a fixed salary. My family and I work on the land and that’s how we can make money,” says the man, who has just returned home with close to Rs 1 lakh from the day’s groundnut sale. With no outsourcing, Vinaybhai has few overheads.
So does the happy and successful farmer, who isn’t keen that his son move to the city, support Hardik? Vinaybhai nods his head. “What he says makes sense. Even if I am happy in the village, why should I be against someone who is asking for reservations and higher prices?” he asserts.
There is a light nip in the air at Khodaldham temple, a shrine to goddess Khodiyar, the patron deity of Leuva Patel community, in Jetpur taluka, some 60 km from Rajkot. A few hundred Congress workers make way for a car to come through; Ravi Bhai Patel, their candidate, alights to cheers. Even as he saunters up the stairs to the temple promenade, someone in his team shouts out instructions: “No one should eat in the shops here; food is being served in our Congress office. Spread the word.”
A cool breeze blows through the large, beautiful, and largely open, temple arena, inaugurated earlier this year. “Jai Khodiyaar maa” chants ring the air as Ravi Bhai pays his obeisance to the deity.
As he climbs down the stairs and kneels to wear his slippers, someone points to an elderly man putting on his footwear. “Kya naam boley (What name did you say)?” he whispers to an aide. The old man is Dhani Ram Shandil, a former Congress MP from Himachal Pradesh, who is in Gujarat to help out the Congress candidate from Wankaner, Mohammad Javed Pirzada.
Shandil and Ravi Bhai shake hands, pose for photographs, and Shandil leans towards the younger candidate. “You are doing campaign meetings tomorrow and day after, no?” he asks, nudging the younger candidate on the importance of the last-minute push. “Yes, yes, definitely,” Ravi Bhai says. “Don’t worry, sir, is baar Saurashtra mein Congress aayega. Parivartan hai hawaa mein (This time, the Congress is coming in Saurashtra. There is change in the air).”
Shandil smiles and wishes Ravi Bhai. “We have to learn the last-minute poll-booth management from the likes of Amit Shah, no doubt. But as Ravi Bhai said, I too have felt the winds of change in Gujarat,” he says.
Last month, Rahul Gandhi had visited the temple. In January, a day before the shrine was opened to the public, Hardik had come.
A few metres away from the main entrance, Mehboob Hussain walks out from a pop-up shamiyana. Inside the tent adorned with BJP colours and flags, plastic chairs are being taken away in trucks, big utensils being packed up. BJP MP Vitthal Radadiya is unwell, and his son Jayesh, who is the party candidate challenging Ravi Patel, had organised prayers at the temple. Hussain drove the BJP local leaders to the prayer meeting in his Innova. “Is baar toh Congress aayega lagta hai is area mein (This time, it appears the Congress is winning in this area),” Hussain says.
In his 50s, Hussain says he has driven many pilgrims to the temple. “There is always a big crowd here, even before the election campaign. During elections of course the politicians come.”
Even observers from the Guinness world records have come. In January, over 3.5 lakh people sang the national anthem here, claiming a world record. In the process, Gujarat got a temple where nationalistic fervour is now entwined with religious sentiments.
In the first 15 minutes of a conversation, Khimji Patel describes himself as “well-educated” and “sober” 16 times. He is a teacher, who is at a Dhoraji school on election duty. He is sitting upright on a park bench and talking politics, Patidar politics. He is a non-believer, not one who would call Hardik Patel the next Sardar or even the Keshubhai 2.0.
Dhoraji has an interesting contest, it’s between the Congress’s Lalit Vasoya and the BJP’s Harilal Patel. Vasoya is the only leader of Hardik’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) contesting in this election. Though both Vasoya and Harilal happen to be Patels, one is Kadva and the other Leuva. In past elections, the two type of Patels have fought bitter battles, with voters divided on the sub-caste.
In the run-up to the polls, Hardik has tried to bridge the divide. He asks the crowd a question, “What type of Patel are you?”, and follows up with multiple choices, KBC-like: “Kadva, Leuva or Patidar?”. The crowd chants “Patidar, Patidar”. On the field, it’s easier chanted and done. For Hardik to succeed, the Patels need to vote en masse. That’s a tall order.
Khimji says Hardik is asking for the moon. “It’s gradually changing, Kadva-Leuva marriages are taking place, but the real integration of issues will take time. And how can you ever imagine that a community will have one voice?” he says, insisting that Dhoraji is all about local issues.
Pointing to the road in the front, he expresses Dhoraji’s lament. “This road was as uneven as a freshly ploughed field. We had even decided that we will not allow politicians to enter our city for campaigning. Now, it has improved. So let’s see if people give the BJP one more chance,” he says.
Ask him which Patel he will vote for, and he answers, “My Patel”. You wait for more, but it isn’t forthcoming. What type of Patel are you? He doesn’t chant.
It’s evening at a small village in Kalawad district. It’s a Patidar village but it has a reserved seat. In the fading light, the elders at the village square are still catching up on their reading. One with a woollen cap is poring over an eveninger and the other in thick glasses is looking closely at the election list. They are amused at the sudden interest shown in their choices.
The one with the woollen cap says he keeps it easy. “Whoever gets jalebi and ganthiya for us wins,” he smiles broadly. The rest crack up.
Later, giving in to the persistent questioning, they open up. Someone shows a palm, the other stops him from showing his cards.
That’s when a man with missing teeth stands up to explain the silence. It’s a tale that’s totally politically incorrect, even for a campaign marked by abuses and taunts.
It’s also out of place since he is seated in front of a primary school that proudly claims 100 per cent success rate among its girls.
“Have you heard the story about the silence of the royal midwives?” he says, relishing a pause. “No one speaks when the queen has delivered a daughter. Let the king see. Why should the midwife announce it and invite rebuke?”