Hardik Patel joining Congress shows his desperation to be relevant in Gujarat politics amid dwindling crowds at rallies

Pallavi Rebbapragada
Hurt by Patels' anger, the BJP in Gujarat is now putting it money on the OBCs as well as the tribals, who along with Patels account for 60 percent of total votes in the state

"Fir se apne haath mein lenge, apne desh ki kamaan, aise vyarth na jaane denge vir Shivaji ka balidaan (we will reclaim the politics of our land so the sacrifice of rulers like Shivaji who rose up against dictators doesn't go to waste)."

This was one of the few Hindi phrases doing the rounds at Patidar leader Hardik Patel's Anamat Andolan rallies in Gujarat in 2017. Back then, the 25-year-old would manage to attract thousands of youngsters who would spill onto streets in bikes, open jeeps and on foot, with painted faces, holding placards of Iron Man Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and rattling out slogans invoking Patidar pride.

Hardik, who had committed to remain apolitical back then, finally joined the Congress on Tuesday in the presence of party president Rahul Gandhi at the party's working committee meeting in Ahmedabad. Last week, Hardik had announced that he will contest the Lok Sabha election from the Jamnagar constituency. But even in Surat, which was the epicentre of his reservation movement, the BJP won all 12 seats with comfortable margins in the 2017 Gujarat Assembly election. In the city's Patidar-dominated pockets €" Varachha, Karanj, Katargam €" his roadshows were huge, but the majority that opposed his ideas seem to have saved their verdict for election day, and his anti-BJP campaign didn't result in electoral gain for the Congress.

Hardik had repeatedly insisted he was sworn to his cause and not aligned with any party, until this recent move to officially join the grand old party. He had formed the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), which claims to be an apolitical organisation aiming to make Patidars eligible for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota.

Neither the BJP, nor the Congress can ignore the fact that 45 to 52 of the 189 seats in Gujarat fall in Patidar-dominated regions. Purely from the perspective of vote-bank politics, the two big parties understand that keeping the Patidars on their side in Gujarat will strengthen their game. However, the Patidars are not one monolithic whole, and their concerns are not homogeneous.

The first split is between the Leuva and Kadva Patels €" believed to be descendants of Ramayana's last generation Luv and Kush €" and they belong to Saurashtra, a peninsular, fertile belt. Hardik belongs to the Kadva sub-sect, but the owners of big diamond and real estate businesses are Leuva Patels, who are strongly opposed to the idea of even marrying their children into the other sub-caste.

The other split within the Patidars lies in the demographic history of the caste. Saurashtra's key towns are Jamnagar, Junagarh, Rajkot and Porbandar, and then there are the Gohil princely state towns of Bhavnagar and Amreli. Owing to the locational advantage of being closer to the sight of the royalty and also to South Gujarat, they migrated to the emerging cities of Ahmedabad and Surat in the 1970s before others. The Patels from the other regions followed suit and populated the diamond, textile and real-estate industries. Today, the Patels from Bhavnagar and Amreli are more prosperous and big names in diamond and textile business hubs.

For instance, of the 116 members elected to the Surat Municipal Corporation in the 2015 election, 16 were from Bhavnagar and Amreli. In the 2017 Vidhan Sabha election, Patidars from Bhavnagar and Amreli were given tickets in the constituencies of Surat Uttar, Katargam, Kamrej, Varachha and Karanj. At least in Surat, discontent over decades of democratic neglect in the minds of the nearly six lakh Patidars from Junagarh, Jamnagar and Rajkot concretised the Patidar agitation and the rise of Hardik. But, as evident from the election verdict, it wasn't enough reason for them to repose faith in Hardik's movement and consolidate themselves against the ruling party even though Hardik often used the phrase 'hum, Patel' (us, Patel) while making references to the needs of the community.

Another reason for the loss was the lack of a positive agenda in Hardik's movement. The agitation seemed more anti-Modi than pro-Patidar. In present-day Gujarat, ideological movements have little relevance because people vote on developmental promises, especially the ones that pertain to their trade. If the attraction towards Hardik's ideas had remained strong among the Patidars, the crowds at his protests and fasts wouldn't have dwindled.

Instead of embracing Hardik with much fanfare and making a noise about attracting a popular face, the Congress should address the attrition of its leaders with strong presence on the ground level.

Senior Congress leader Kunvarji Bavaliya switched sides. He was popular among the Koli samaaj, which has a long history of being critical of the BJP. Congress should have thrown its weight behind Bavalia, who ultimately won the bypoll and became a Gujarat Cabinet minister in the BJP government. The Jasdan constituency in Gujarat's Rajkot district went to be polls on 20 December, and Bavalia's victory proved that it wasn't a Congress bastion all this while but the fortress of Bavalia, who has won the Jasdan seat five consecutive times.

Immediately after Bavaliya, Indranil Rajyaguru tendered his resignation to Gujarat Congress chief Amit Chavda. He reason he cited was that some leaders had indulged in anti-party activities, and instead of taking disciplinary action against them, the Congress awarded them key positions. This highlights the disconnect 10 Janpath has with the layers and sub-layers of leadership in the depths of Gujarat.

More recently, Jawahar Chavda, who enjoys a solid grassroots connect because of his mining background, also joined the BJP. A four-time MLA from Manavadar constituency and a prominent leader of the OBC Ahir community, Chavda was inducted as a Gujarat Cabinet minister. He is the son of Congress veteran Pethalji Chavda of Junagadh district and is credited with keeping the party's presence alive in his constituency.

Yogesh Patel, a BJP MLA from Manjalpur of Vadodara district, and Jamnagar West MLA Dharmendrasinh Jadeja had also crossed over from the Congress and later inducted into the cabinet. Parshottam Sabariya, the MLA from Dhrangadhra constituency of the Saurashtra region, had also resigned from the Congress.

Vallabh Dharaviya from Jamnagar Rural, who had left the BJP to join the Congress before the 2017 state elections, returned to the ruling party; his return to the BJP, along with others, proves that the Opposition is failing to retain local leaders in Gujarat.

Instead of celebrating Hardik's entry into the Congress, the party should fix its internal issues, be it lack of communication or the inability to build a stronger development alternative, failing which it won't be able to put up a good fight like it did in 2017, a performance that was dubbed as a moral victory for the party in Narendra Modi's state.

Also See: Hardik Patel likely to join Congress on 12 March, may contest Lok Sabha election from Jamnagar constituency

Hardik Patel joins Congress: Patidar leader calls Rahul Gandhi 'honest', accuses Narendra Modi of 'working like dictator'

Congress Lok Sabha Elections 2019 Campaign Updates: Priyanka makes first political speech, Rahul attacks Modi over Rafale

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