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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Hardik Patel: The Man in the Middle

In a state where more than half of the voters are youths, this 23-year-old has tilted the scales. Whichever side now emerges heavier, the Patidar leader who has captured a community’s imagination with his speeches, roadside meetings, and direct attacks on BJP, is here to stay. The Indian Express on the trail of Hardik Patel

Written by Gopal B Kateshiya , Kamaal Saiyed | Updated: June 26, 2018 11:29:13 am
Hardik Patel, Gujarat agitation, Patidar agitation Hardik at the Maha Kranti rally in Rajkot on November 29. “Don’t assume all your grievances will be redressed if Congress forms the government. But it is important to defeat BJP,” he tells the crowd. (Express Photo/Javed Raja)

IT’S 9.30 am on a working Wednesday and the ceramic tile town of Morbi has almost come to a standstill. Preparations are on at the Parshuram Pottery Ground for a grand rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is expected to land any time. Along the streets of Morbi though, an SUV is slowly moving in a convoy to a smaller gathering of farmers in village Khakhrechi, 40 km away. Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) convenor Hardik Patel hangs out of the SUV, waving to the crowd.

Dominated by Patidars or Patels, Morbi district is one of the epicentres of the community’s agitation for OBC status. Since the time Hardik was arrested in October 2015 on the charge of allegedly insulting the national flag, the anger against the BJP has been growing. In the December 2015 local body polls, the party tasted defeat in Morbi for the first time in decades, with offices of its Morbi MLA, Kantilal Amrutiya, and its Rajkot MP, Mohan Kundariya, being set afire. In recent times, minister Jayanti Kavadiya has faced protests while campaigning in his constituency, Dhrangadhra, parts of which falls in Morbi district.

Modi’s visit, 10 days ahead of the first phase of Gujarat voting on December 9, was meant to boost the party’s morale. Hardik’s reply is this road show, and multiple other well-attended meetings. The “showdown”, or as Hardik is projecting it, is just another sign of the confidence of the 23-year-old Kadva Patel from Viramgam in Ahmedabad, who burst on the scene just two years ago, has half-a-dozen cases against him, including two of sedition, spent six months outside the state on court orders, and who has emerged as a third force in a state used to a bipolar electoral contest — without even being eligible to contest.

Unlike Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor, the two other youth leaders who also rose simultaneously with him, Hardik has remained independent of any party, forcing concessions from a desperate Congress, which has clutched at the support he has extended. Prof Priyavadan Patel, former head of department of political science at MS University, Baroda, says the rise of young leaders such as Hardik indicates the “failure of the political class”. “At the root (of Hardik’s success) lies the massive discontent with the 22-year-long term of the BJP. Hardik has managed to touch the pulse of the community that’s borne the brunt of jobless growth since 2004,” he says.

People won’t vote on caste, it will vote for vikaswaad, says BJP chief Amit Shah

But that explains only a part of Hardik’s appeal. He is a good orator, a tireless campaigner, and increasingly, a consummate politician who changes his message as he goes along. From positioning the prosperous Patidars as a community that got left out of the Gujarat “development plan”, Hardik is now attacking the BJP on many issues. While doing so, he has been addressing an average of three public rallies a day, engaging the public in the local dialect, switching to Hindi, and mimicking politicians.

Hardik Patel, Gujarat agitation, Patidar agitation

In August 2015, days after his mega rally in Ahmedabad announcing his arrival — Hardik now calls it ‘Kranti Divas’ — Hardik had ruled out launching a political outfit. He told The Indian Express: “If I have the remote (control) of 182 channels, why do I need to join politics?” Even now, Hardik insists his campaign thrust is more about “vote against the BJP” than “vote for the Congress”.

But with or without a formal role, Hardik is a factor this time round. Youths form at least 52 per cent of the Gujarat electorate; and out of the 182 constituencies of the state, in at least 71, Patidars form 15 per cent or more of the voters. It’s here that Hardik will be watched. He has a following among both the Kadva and Leuva Patidars.

It’s 10.30 am, and Hardik’s SUV has slowed down to get onto the Khakrechi approach road from the highway. A few young men surround his vehicle and, as Hardik lowers the window, start clicking selfies. The rest of the 4-km road to the rally ground is riddled with potholes, and the convoy of around a dozen SUVs and cars makes it in a creaking 30 minutes.

Hardik, a vermillion on his forehead, uses the time to go live on Facebook and announce his meetings for the day, especially the one at Rajkot, where he expects “50,000 people”. He tells a supporter, a Jain who has connected with him on Facebook: “Our fight is also for you”. Later, he breaks into a song, “Khoon mein meri mitti, mitti mein mera khoon…” Those around him laugh.

Just before reaching the rally ground, Hardik stops by at the home of Mahesh Parajiya, the convenor of the Maliya taluka unit of PAAS, for some juice. Eleven security personnel accompany him. Last week, Hardik was assigned Y-category security.

PAAS does not have any formal structure, says its Surat co-convenor, Dharmik Malaviya. Eighteen months ago, when PAAS put out a number where volunteers could enrol with a missed call, Malaviya claims, “We collected a database of 4.72 lakh people from Surat alone.” He says they have “around 500” people “with responsibilities” across Gujarat. After Surat and Rajkot, the outfit opened its first office in Ahmedabad on December 1, but continues to function mostly on social media. “For any task, we can at once touch base with 600-700 people,” says Malaviya.

PAAS arose out of the Sardar Patel Group (SPG), founded by Lalji Patel, a farmer from Mehsana. Five years ago, Lalji inducted Hardik into the SPG, and made him the outfit’s social media in-charge. Soon, Hardik launched PAAS, becoming its “national convenor” sometime in 2014. Like he would do with the quota agitation later, Hardik raised PAAS almost entirely through social media.

Once, Hardik claimed to be on some 500 active WhatsApp groups. Police have cited some of the WhatsApp exchanges between Hardik and other PAAS members in the sedition case against him

Around 11 am, as Hardik reaches the farmers’ sammelan at Khakhrechi, supporters rush towards him. Armed CISF commandos encircle him and help him reach the stage, as slogans of ‘Jai Sardar, Jai Patidar’ reverberate. Among those sitting in the audience, and not on the stage, is Brijesh Merja, the Congress candidate from Morbi. He is up against sitting BJP MLA Kantilal Amrutiya.

As soon as Hardik climbs onto the stage, Tulsi Patel, a PAAS supporter, tells the crowd, “We concede Gandhiji and the Congress did injustice to Sardar Patel. But what did the BJP do to Deputy CM Nitin Patel? He had even distributed sweets (in the hope of becoming CM after Anandiben Patel), but you chose somebody else… The Congress committed mistakes and that’s why it was voted out.”

A long line of people walk up to felicitate Hardik. The PAAS later underlines that they were representatives of various communities, including Dalits and Muslims. PAAS spokesperson Manoj Panara also invites women to get their photographs clicked with Hardik, and girls dash up. As chief of PAAS, Hardik has clearly overshadowed other youth leaders — Gujarat Yuva BJP president Rutvij Patel and state Youth Congress chief Indravijaysinh Gohil. At least for now, the Congress says it doesn’t feel threatened by his popularity. “His ideology is more aligned to that of the Congress. This is an advantage for us. We see him as an ally and coworker,” says Gohil.

Varun Patel, who fell out with Hardik and is now in the BJP, pays him a backhanded compliment when he says, “The public are not accepting Congress. Hence, they are using Hardik,” he says, before adding, “He enjoys support of only those who support the ideology of the Congress… The community will feel bad about my decision (to join the BJP) for a few weeks but they will understand.”

PAAS leaders have been attending public meetings of Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who is contesting from Vadgam as an Independent with Congress support. With OBC face Alpesh Thakor joining the Congress, all these three young faces are now standing with the Congress. While Dalits make up 7 per cent of the population, OBCs form a sizeable 40 per cent chunk.

In joining forces, Hardik, Jignesh and Alpesh have also managed to find common cause. While Thakor’s mobilisation of OBCs initially began as a challenge to the PAAS agitation — seen as seeking a share of OBC quota — a year-and-half later, they are talking youth and farmer issues, jobs, education and a fair minimum support price for their harvest.

Almost 20 minutes later, Hardik is yet to begin. Panara is still setting the mood. “Instead of giving MSP to farmers, they purchased our Varun and Reshma at minimum support price,” he says, referring to the two PAAS leaders who joined the BJP.

Realising the thin line PAAS is treading regarding the Congress, with the Congress not clearly committing itself on the quota demand, Panara adds, “Media asks us if we can support the Congress after voting for the BJP all along. But supporting the Congress is not like supporting Pakistan. The Congress was our original party and our father Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was its president once. Farmers and Patidars supporting the Congress is ghar vapsi.”

Panara then appeals for votes for Merja. The Congress candidate stands up and sheepishly acknowledges the applause. The party itself is less abashed. Under pressure from PAAS, the Congress recently replaced three of its candidates. Lalit Vasoya is the sole PAAS leader in the electoral race, contesting from Dhoraji seat in Rajkot district on a Congress ticket.

With PAAS support, the Congress is hoping to repeat its performance of the 2015 Surat municipal corporation elections, where it won 37 of 116 seats, of whom 23 councillors were Patidars. Vijay Panseriya, 29, among the winners on Congress ticket in 2015, has held PAAS meetings in Varachha, Surat. “We are soldiers of Hardik Patel. My ambition is to become a member of Parliament,” he says.

Hardik Patel, Gujarat agitation, Patidar agitation Hardik is also fond of recounting how his father Bharat Patel used to drive around Anandiben Patel’s jeep during her campaigns.

In his tweets, Hardik has been speaking out against Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, while clarifying that he used to support the BJP of Keshubhai Patel, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Kashiram Rana. Hardik is also fond of recounting how his father Bharat Patel used to drive around Anandiben Patel’s jeep during her campaigns.

Khakhrechi village is near the Maliya branch canal of the Narmada dam project, but doesn’t get water as the canal network is incomplete. Modi has been claiming Narmada as a success story, while the Opposition has been pointing out that work on it is far from over. Farmers here are also angry over delayed and insufficient payments under crop insurance.

Around noon, Hardik finally takes the microphone. Trying to underline equidistance from both the major parties, the 23-year-old says, “This is not an election between the BJP and Congress… If the BJP loses, it will be your victory. And if the BJP wins, you will lose. And mind my words, if the BJP wins, it will kick the public and say it doesn’t need you.”

Hardik realises this himself – that it is a make-or-break moment for the Patels. Should the BJP win despite them, they believe the party may consider the Patels irrelevant. The meeting in Khakhrechi ends around 12.30 pm. As the crowd dissipates, Hardik and aides are led to the nearby Bajrangwadi, a community hall, for lunch. But Hardik doesn’t eat anything. Instead, he takes out his cellphone and starts updating his Facebook page. Narsinh Bavarva, 65, has come from village Chanchavadarda, about 30 km away. “Hardik is right that farmers have not got good prices for cotton and groundnut,” Bavarva, a farmer, says, adding that he believes the Congress has got a good chance this time.

The Gujarat government has raised the MSP for groundnut to Rs 900 per 20 kg and that of cotton to Rs 864 per 20 kg, besides a Rs-1,000 bonus. But farmers say it’s not enough. Mohan Kundariya, former Union minister of state for agriculture and sitting BJP MP from Rajkot, says Hardik is merely trying to “mislead” farmers. “What was the situation before 1995? Farmers had difficulty taking their produce to the markets as roads were not good enough and then, their electric motor pumps would trip because of fluctuations. Today, the government has announced a very good MSP. Anyway, why is Hardik talking about farmers when his agenda was to get OBC quota for Patidars.”

Estimating that the crowd at the Khakhrechi ground numbered 4,000, Parajiya, the PAAS convenor from Maliya taluka, says it took them just a couple of days to assemble it. “Hardik is a big hero here. If I post a message saying he is coming, at least 1,500 people will gather in no time,” says the 39-year-old who runs a photography and videography studio, besides cultivating a 30-bigha plot.

Around 1 pm, Hardik leaves the community hall for Bela village. Fifteen km later, at Rangpar, his convoy runs into a group of youths blocking the road. They persuade Hardik to visit their village, where he addresses a small crowd standing on the plinth of a compound wall. “I am not here for a meeting. Nor shall I adivise you who to vote for. But don’t vote for the BJP,” he says in his speech, leaving after a few minutes.

At the next stop in Bela, Hardik holds a ‘Chai pe charcha’ — directly taking on an idea Modi propagated in the 2012 elections. And then begins his speech: “The only thing left for me to do is to write here (pointing to his forehead) ‘I’m a fool’. We are all fools because we have been electing for the last 25 years those who don’t talk about farmers, don’t give employment to youths, don’t pay crop insurance on time…,” he says. The crowd listens in complete silence.

While PAAS leaders say Hardik writes his own speeches and improvises on the spot, his closest aides, Dinesh Bambaniya and Alpesh Katheriya, help with mobilising support. Neither has a political background. The next stop is the big Rajkot meeting, dubbed ‘Maha Kranti (Great Revolution)’. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani is standing from Rajkot West, and just 24 hours earlier, had addressed a ‘Kadva Patidar Sammelan’ at the same venue. All through the day, Hardik has been pumping up for the Rajkot meeting, enquiring about the preparations, and urging supporters on Facebook and crowds at smaller meetings to attend it.

By the time he arrives, it is 8 pm, and the ground is packed, with crowds spilling over to the road. As the crowd hysterically shouts “Hardik, Hardik,” the Patel leader seeks to administer a sedative. “Don’t assume that all your grievances will be redressed when Congress forms the government,” says Hardik, as the crowd falls silent. He hurriedly adds: “But it is important to defeat BJP to remind them that people can elect those they like and dislodge ones they don’t like,” the young leader says while winding up his speech and drawing cries of “Jai Sardar, Jai Patidar,” from the delirious crowd.

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