The Congress has started back-channel talks with both Hardik Patel, the face of the Patidar reservation agitation, and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani in poll bound Gujarat, where the grand old party may be locked in a two-way contest with the BJP, which has been ruling the coastal state since 1998.
Sources told this reporter that the Congress has been sending emissaries to both Hardik and Mewani and the responses have been “satisfactory so far”. The sources also said that the grand old party, which in July saw rebellion by senior leader Shankersinh Vaghela and MLAs loyal to him, may settle for a “soft Hindutva” angle in the polls that are likely to be scheduled for December.
“Talks are on with Hardik Patel. Shabnam Hashmi, who is considered close to Sonia Gandhi, too held a meeting with Hardik. If all goes well, Hardik may support the Congress, although nothing can be asserted now. If he supports the Congress, we will benefit hugely,” a top source in the Congress told this newspaper. Shabnam Hashmi is a social activist and human rights campaigner, who was in the news in June for returning her National Minority Rights Award to protest the mob lynching of Junaid, who was stabbed to death on a train in Ballabhgarh the same month.
The sources further confirmed the Congress’ overtures to Jignesh Mewani, saying a few leaders are in touch with the Dalit leader to get him to support the Congress and raise the pitch against cases of alleged violence against the Dalits in the state.
“People in the Congress are holding talks with him on a regular basis. The response is positive. We are hopeful of something fruitful from our meetings with him,” sources told this reporter.
Mewani was in the forefront of the agitation against the flogging of a Dalit man in Una last year. He was on Wednesday detained by the police when he was protesting against alleged atrocities on Dalits, in front of the state secretariat in Gandhinagar.
The Congress hopes that if Mewani intensifies his protests, while declaring support for the Congress, the party could make “law and order” an issue in the polls. The sources said, Congress is also banking on Hardik Patel to make a dent in the BJP’s Patel votes. The Patels have never been an ardent supporter of the grand old party. But the Congress high command is of the view that the BJP is in the back foot due to continued Patidar agitation and if Hardik lends it support, the party can make a serious bid at power, courtesy the Patidar votes.
“It can make a big difference. The Congress has sent feelers to Hardik Patel. If he supports us or joins us, we will have a strong shot at power in December when the state votes,” claimed a Congress source.
When asked about the overall strategy of the party in Gujarat, a source in the Congress confirmed that the party may adopt a very covert Hindutva line to counter the majority community’s consolidation behind the BJP as was seen in Uttar Pradesh.
“Rahul Gandhi’s much publicised temple visit was part of the overall strategy to send out ‘certain feelers’ to the majority community, silently. The party may develop this strategy further,” the source explained.