At an election rally in Saurashtra, Modi mentioned the Mangadh murders of 1985, where the Kshatriyas killed ten Patels in a caste war. Congress Chief Minister Madhavsinh Solanki was anyway perceived to be anti-Patel. The incident also played a role in facilitating the BJP’s rise in the state, countering Solanki’s politics. Patel leaders used the BJP as a vehicle to serve their aspirations.
With caste passions unleashed in Gujarat over the last two years, a counter-polarisation, mainly of OBCs, is necessary for BJP to counter Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan.
Under the leadership of Hardik Patel, the Patidar youth belonging to Saurashtra and North Gujarat are questioning the BJP like never before. In Gujarat where around 52% voters are young, no party can ignore them.
Due to anti-incumbency against the BJP, the middle class families in cities and towns are divided. In many cases, the youths are supporting non-BJP forces, while the middle-aged and the elderly are not finding the Congress as a better alternative, yet.
The Gujarati youth’s fury against corruption and arrogance of the ruling class is visible on WhatsApp. Many Patidar youths are also questioning Modi’s statements and performance, and ridiculing his party leaders. The opposition is being spread through acidic humour in WhatsApp groups. Here, the ruling party is using its potent arsenal more against Hardik than against Congress. Here is an election which seems sharply divided between urban and rural voters. The urban voters are largely standing firm on their old political position of 2012, while in rural areas both Congress and BJP are keeping their fingers crossed.
BJP is trying to ensure that Hardik Patel’s energetic appeal amongst young Patel voters is countered with quiet but solid consolidation of anti-Patel votes in its favour by 9 December. Saurashtra’s 48 seats are BJP’s weak spots. North Gujarat’s 32 seats were considered weak for BJP as Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor belong to the area, but BJP seems to have an edge now as Congress has messed up in ticket distribution.
In a consumerist and materialistic society like Gujarat, the political messaging is spread mostly through SMSes and WhatsApp message on smartphones. Here jokes and abusive cartoons on Modi, audio/video clips ridiculing Modi and anti-BJP slogans are available by the thousands. BJP and Congress are also using the social media with flourish, but Hardik’s boys have got speed and desi appeal. They write in colloquial Gujarati as it’s spoken in Saurashtra and North Gujarat. Around 2013, Hardik Patel was social media in-charge of the Sardar Patel Group led by farmer leader Lalji Patel in Viramgam. Now, political messages from Hardik’s outfit, Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) is creating waves among young Patels, even helping Hardik get bigger crowds than PM Modi and Congress’ Rahul Gandhi.
The PAAS and the Sardar Patel Group send hundreds of messages daily to thousands of young people. These voices belong to post-Modi Gujarat and shout loud about overthrowing the BJP government.
Out of 182, Patel votes can make a difference in 45 Assembly seats. Under pressure, BJP has given 51 seats to the Patels, while Congress has given them 43. Thus, Hardik’s movement has, already, registered a political success. On 33 seats, both parties have fielded Patel candidates, so at least 33 Patels will find a place in the new Assembly. So, without any official reservation policy, around 18% representation has already been secured by a community which totals around 14% of the state’s population.
However, a movement against or for reservation is a double-edged sword in any election due to possible caste polarisation. Knowing this, Hardik and his backers including Congress have shifted the caste-based movement onto the larger platform of “Padi Do BJP ne” (remove BJP) by highlighting the “failure” of the education system in Gujarat, unemployment, and agricultural issues, mainly related to the minimum support price for cotton, groundnut, etc.
In 1985, Gujarat had seen the anti-reservation agitation turn communal and violent, killing many people. This time Hardik, who is against reservation in society, changed his tack after coming back from jail and externment in Rajasthan. He started talking about getting reservation for Patels, instead of talking about “injustice” done to the Patels due to reservation given to socially backward classes. The problem with many Patels is that they want reservation, but do not want to get labelled “backward”, which they consider to be a “lowly” title.
Hardik’s jail term in 2015-2016 has made him smarter. He has tried to correct his “rowdy and rustic Patel boy” image. Instead of talking only about Patel aspiration, he is now abusing “feku Modi”, “General Dyer Amit Shah” and “Shah’s robot Rupani”. Modi and Shah are not difficult targets for Hardik, because Modi came to power unseating Keshubhai Patel and Amit Shah ensured the replacement of Anandiben Patel with Vijay Rupani.
In the early 90s, Pravin Togadia, a Patel leader who headed the VHP, was more powerful than Modi. But, he lost his position soon after Modi became Chief Minister. Both of them had huge ego clashes. Also, Modi being a strong leader enjoying the entire political space, could keep lobbyists, rich farmers and businessmen in the real estate, groundnut, tobacco and cotton growing sectors—who were overwhelmingly Patels—on a tight leash. He gave them opportunity to grow and expand their businesses but didn’t share actual political power so that they could have a say in running the government or crucial transfers of officers.
Once Hardik’s talent to keep the crowd enthralled became apparent, these rich and powerful Patels belonging to Congress, BJP, VHP and the rest of the Sangh supported him covertly or overtly.
This is a novelty factor in Gujarat, which was absent in the 2012 elections. Hardik is now ruthlessly exposing the double-talk and corruption of BJP’s local leaders, and talking rough suggesting that he is afraid of none. This is raising Congress’ hopes. Congress leaders like Shaktisinh Gohil and Bharat Solanki have disappeared into the background, giving Hardik full play in the media and on the streets. Jignesh Mevani’s and Alpesh Thakor’s supporters do not have as much money or political power as Hardik. Their social media presence pales compared to Hardik’s because Dalit and Thakor youths do not have as many smartphones as Hardik’s followers have.
Hardik has turned into a “rock-star” because he has political articulation to convince the youth of his caste that, he “won’t budge before Modi”. His initial success in getting a huge audience is entirely due to a feeling among the youth of Saurashtra and North Gujarat against increase in reservation for the so-called backward classes; they think their problem is not going away as BJP is using their votes but not giving them reservation. Patels belonging to the poor and middle classes, who have been hit by the slow moving economy and the side-effects of GST and demonetisation, support Hardik openly.
However, Hardik’s biggest weakness is that he is shooting in the dark and is unlikely to hit the target. When argument hits a dead-end on the real possibility of getting reservation for Patels, he foolishly talks about giving “reservation to all castes”. He doesn’t have advisors and an able team which can think through BJP and even Congress’ tactics over reservation issue. After the elections, whoever wins, Hardik is likely to be ignored by both parties. Hardik was born on 20 July 1993. So being underage, he will not be able to fight Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
Due to legal limitations and social ambiguity of Hardik’s main mission of getting reservation for Patels, it is possible that the Patels may get divided between Congress and BJP, giving an advantage to BJP.
Already, Koli Patels of South Gujarat, who are the biggest part of the OBCs are showing signs of remaining with the BJP due to the new caste permutations and combinations.
But BJP is hoping that Hardik’s actions will produce silent socio-political sentiments against the upwardly mobile Patidars, even though that is not easy when anti-incumbency against BJP is deep.
But if a caste versus caste war breaks out in polling booths then BJP will get an unexpected advantage in the 2017 elections.
The Congress is trying hard to keep Hardik at a safe distance to ensure that the anti- Patel consolidation doesn’t happen and Congress’ old and tested formula of KHAM turns into KHAM plus Patel in Saurashtra and North Gujarat, at least.
Hardik’s political appeal suggests that certainly there is an anti-BJP vote in the making. The voters have even ignored the sex CDs that allegedly involve him. The morality issue has taken a backseat. However, the way Congress has supported Hardik to have a full play in public discourse suggests there is no pro-Congress vote, yet. In the run for the last mile, Hardik has a difficult task on hand.