In 2012, Keshubhai Patel was at the centre of the Gujarat elections, having launched the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) that contested 167 seats and won two. It was the first time since 1995 that a third party had won seats in Gujarat. The GPP, built on the “injustice to Patidars” slogan, was powered by the RSS and got 3.63% of the vote, said to be the BJP’s anti-incumbency votes.
This election, the huge crowds at Patidar quota agitation leader Hardik Patel’s rallies have raised the question whether the BJP could once again lose the Patidar vote, its backbone since 1995 when it won its first election in Gujarat. In an election where more than half the voters are aged under 40, an additional worry for the BJP is the support Hardik enjoys among young Patels.
Besides, Hardik’s organisation, PAAS, has announced an understanding with the Congress over reservation. In the first list of Congress candidates, released Sunday, one is a PAAS member, Lalit Vasoya, from Dhoraji.
Patidars are estimated to account for about 12%, or roughly one-eighth, of Gujarat’s 6 crore-odd population. In 71 of the 182 seats, they form 15% or more of the electorate, which can swing the verdict if enough of them vote in the same direction.’
The highest concentration is in Varachha (60%), a seat in Surat where sitting BJP MLA Kumar Kanani will take up the challenge. Other seats in Surat where Patidars number 40% or more are Katargam, Surat North and Kamrej. Elsewhere, seats with such high concentrations are Visavadar from where Keshubhai won in 2012, Gondal and Unjha, where the BJP had failed to put up a single candidate on its symbol in the 2015 civic polls.
Hardik and BJP
Hardik, 23, who is as old as the BJP has been in power in Gujarat, is not yet eligible to contest but has taken centrestage of the lection. He has built his narrative around an anti-Narendra Modi, anti-Amit Shah and anti-BJP sentiment. Over the last week, he has been the target of three alleged sex videos. After the first video emerged, he announced that “as a seasoned politician I have to accept this”.
While the BJP is officially distancing itself from the videos, its leaders have made it clear it is hoping these will turn sentiment against him. “The Patidar community has always been with the BJP and in these elections they will vote for the BJP,” said BJP MLA Rushikesh Patel, one of Hardik’s targets during the quota agitation in 2015. “For a brief period, the young generation had got misguided by someone like Hardik Patel. However, now [with the emergence of the videos] the community has seen his true face. And he has also been exposed on several issues.”
In other signs of how seriously the BJP views Hardik, it has taken four key PAAS leaders into its fold, and its leaders have played up a video testimonial by a “grand nephew” of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel denouncing Hardik as a “disruptor of the nation”.
Hardik, formerly with the Sardar Patel Group led by Lalji Patel, later broke away and took centrestage of the quota movement when his supporters mobilised a gathering of lakhs at Ahmedabad’s GMDC Ground in August 2015. After Hardik was briefly detained by Ahmedabad police, the movement turned leading to 14 deaths in several places.
Curfew followed in several areas of Gujarat, the first time this had happened since 2002 and hurting the the BJP’s plank of Gujarat being a peaceful, curfew-less state. Several sedition cases were slapped on PAAS leaders, including two on Hardik, who was jailed until Gujarat High Court granted him bail on the condition that he stay away from Gujarat for six months.
While Hardik based himself in Rajasthan and travelled to other states meeting leaders such as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (now NDA) and Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray, his supporters continued the movement at home. It was driven by the Patidar stir that the BJP brought an ordinance for 10% reservation to economically weaker sections. The High Court has struck down the legislation, since challenged in the Supreme Court.
Hardik returned to Gujarat in January this year and has since been addressing huge gatherings and aggressively canvassing against the BJP. Since 2015, many of Hardik’s aides have left him. It started with PAAS core committee members Chirag Patel and Ketan Patel, both of whom were very close to Hardik. More recently, Varun Patel and Reshma Patel joined the BJP.
A fifth, Narendra Patel, joined the BJP but soon quit alleging Gujarat BJP chief Jitu Vaghani had offered him a bribe of Rs 1 crore. He put out audio clips to support his allegation.
Hardik and Congress
Narendra Patel is considered close to the Congress; he shared the stage with Rahul Gandhi in Mehsana recently. Besides, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor who recently joined the Congress, Hardik is considered to be the main weapon through which Congress is going to fight the elections. The Congress’s quota formula with PAAS, incidentally, came only a day after Hardik’s rally in Mansa where he told the crowd not to clap at the speeches of netas such as Modi and Rahulji, whom he compared to actors.
In the 2015 local body elections, the Congress had made substantial gains in district and taluka panchayat elections on account of Hardik’s agitation. In the Surat municipal corporation, the party 33 of the 116 seats, trebling its tally from 11 in 2010.
Now, Congress MLA Mahesh Patel said the community is with Hardik. “People are not concerned about such issues [sex videos]. They are very concerned about reservation. Patidars are with Hardik, we are all with him.” Varun Patel, the former PAAS leader, said he quit because Hardik was supporting the Congress clandestinely. “I do not want to do politics in such a clandestine manner, so I joined the BJP.”