The Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti’s (PAAS) agitation led by Hardik Patel could pose bigger problems for the Congress in Gujarat, even though the turmoil is being seen to be currently targeting the Bharatiya Janata Party governments in the state and at the Centre. His growing popularity could help him to grab the opposition space in the region, given that the Congress has lost four consecutive elections to the BJP, including three when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of the state. Therefore, the new outfit could do to the Congress in Gujarat what the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) did to the latter in Delhi.
The 22-year-old Commerce graduate and a staunch follower of Iron Man Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel has caught the imagination of the powerful Patel community, which is looking up to him as its messiah for bringing relief to an estimated 27 crore Patidars in the country. He has been demanding inclusion of the Patels in the OBC category in view of the falling agricultural incomes and lack of opportunities for the youth, who do not have adequate representation in government jobs.
Hardik is arriving in the national capital on Sunday to broad base his agitation under the aegis of the Loh Purush Yuva Sangh. He will address a press conference in North Avenue in the afternoon before participating in a big function being organised at the Gurjar Bhawan near Trilokpuri. He has been assured support by both the Kurmis and members of the Gurjar communities. According to Akhilesh Katiyar, convener of the Yuva Sangh, the objective of Sunday’s meeting is to make the Centre aware of their demands and to create an understanding between members of various communities facing similar problems.
Hardik’s emergence is being watched very closely by Congress leaders, who are not sure whether to back him or treat his politics as an extension of BJP’s inner political war, where Patels have been unhappy for being marginalised despite the fact that they have contributed greatly to the rise of the saffron brigade in the state. Anandiben Patel’s elevation to the post of Chief Minister is viewed by many as her being a nominee of the Prime Minister, rather than being a representative of her community, although Hardik likes to address her as his aunt. There are some in the BJP who see this uprising, which had brought Gujarat to a standstill after more than half a dozen people were killed in clashes with the police, as a signal to the top BJP leadership to not foist any non Patel as CM if a decision is taken to replace Anandiben. To embarrass the BJP leadership, the protesters occasionally wear Sardar Patel masks. When the BJP grabbed power in the state for the first time in the 1990s, it had appointed Shankarsinh Vaghela as CM, but under pressure from the Patels, replaced him with Keshubhai Patel. Keshubhai was asked in 2001 to make way for Modi by Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani.
Hardik hails from a background where his family has supported the BJP in the past. However, he has always claimed that both Sardar Patel and Lord Rama were his inspirations. He has even publicly praised Bihar leaders Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, besides Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray and his nephew Raj Thackeray. The praise for the Thackerays has forced the Bihar leaders to tone down their support for Hardik, given that a large number of Biharis have been targeted in Maharashtra by the Shiv Sena and its breakaway group.
The BJP has dismissed Hardik’s demands as confined to Gujarat. Union Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Thawaar Singh Gehlot said that it was only a state government that could recommend reservation for any community and the Centre had nothing to do with it. Hardik’s supporters insist that once he aligns with other castes demanding reservations, the agitation could become much bigger.
Hardik’s growing influence is an indication also of the loss of relevance of the Congress to a large degree. Countrywide, the Congress, which was genuinely the only national party with presence in every nook and corner, is shrinking in terms of its footprint. In Delhi, the AAP has replaced it and could very well do it also in Punjab. In Jharkhand, the Jharkhand Mukti Morha is the new substitute. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Jagan Mohan Reddy’s party secured more votes than the Congress. The grand old party’s breakaway group in West Bengal, Trinamool Congress has come to occupy the stellar position; and in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil Manila Congress’ revival is being seen as the end of the Congress. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is a force to reckon with in Maharashtra.
There are indications that several top Congress leaders including four former Chief Ministers and four serving CMs are viewing the developments within the party very closely before taking a decision on their future course of action. If their supporters are to be believed, former Haryana CM Bhupendra Singh Hooda, former Punjab CM Amarinder Singh, former Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot and former Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit are in touch with each other. In addition, Himachal CM Virbhadra Singh, Uttarakhand CM Harish Rawat, Assam CM Tarun Gogoi and Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah have been apparently unhappy with directives from the high command, which do not serve the interests of the party. Though no one has said it, there are early signs of a revolt brewing.
Until the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress and the BJP were directly pitted against each other in more than 240 seats. But the rise of regional outfits and breakaway factions of the Congress could help in the BJP consolidating its position at the national level, while the Congress may lose its support base in some states. In fact, many in the Congress are of the view that the importance being given to Rahul Gandhi by his mother was the best political insurance for both Prime Minister Modi and the BJP, which would have as its rival in 2019, regional parties rather than the Congress. This is a cause of both concern and worry for Congress and now Hardik appears to be reinforcing this thesis.