With Hardik effect, politics in Gujarat has just taken an interesting turn

Eight MLAs of the Congress defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just weeks ago, forcing it to yield an extra Rajya Sabha seat to the ruling party.
Why should we take Hardik Patel seriously?

The young Patidar leader who has just been appointed working president of the Gujarat unit of the Congress is, after all, up against heavy odds. Although he campaigned for the Congress in the 2017 Assembly polls, Patel formally had joined the party only 15 months ago, ahead of the 2019 parliamentary elections. Such a rapid elevation in a party like the Congress is nothing short of meteoric. Immediately on being appointed, Patel told local newspapers: “I am taking off in a car to cover 6,000 villages, to make a note of and discuss all their issues. And we shall win all the eight (Assembly) seats (the by-elections are scheduled for September-October this year).”

At 26, Hardik is possibly the youngest ever president of any state unit of the Congress. So not only does he have to restore the people’s confidence in the Congress, but also has to overcome the resistance he will inevitably face from within the party. It is likely that to overcome the latter, he has decided to go over the head of the party structure and plunge into direct action to revive the Congress in Gujarat.

This is not an easy task. Eight MLAs of the Congress defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just weeks ago, forcing it to yield an extra Rajya Sabha seat to the ruling party. The three top state leaders of the Congress —Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhwadia, and Siddharth Patel — had lost the 2017 Assembly elections. Of the 182 seats in the Assembly, the Congress got 77, and the BJP 99. But in the local polls that followed months later, the Congress was wiped out, including in the areas where it had shown promise during the Assembly elections.

How did the party lose momentum?

In 2015 and 2016, Hardik’s “anamat (reservations)” for Patidars campaign under the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti tore Gujarat asunder. In a sense, this was an expression of a politically powerful community that suddenly felt it had become powerless: Patidars dominance in Gujarat was challenged by Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki in the early 1980s when his Kshatriya-Harijan-Aadivasi-Muslim (KHAM) combination won more than 150 seats in the Assembly. Patidars then used the BJP as a political vehicle to reclaim their dominant position in state politics. When the BJP came to power, building a larger social coalition under the pan-community Hindu umbrella, the chief ministership went to Keshubhai Patel. But later, except for a short period under Anandiben Patel, Gujarat has had a non-Patidar CM for almost two decades.

Hardik’s rise began in the pre-Anandiben period, but peaked when she was chief minister. He made the reservation for Patidars his central theme in a state where the poor quality of education meant that “with 95 per cent marks, a Patel child is unlikely to get into a government medical college and can be required to pay Rs 5 lakh and upwards to become a doctor, while a Dalit child even with 87 per cent marks gets free education,” Anandiben Patel told Business Standard. When she was replaced with Vijay Rupani as CM, Hardik’s rebellion died down but not before he had extracted a promise from the Congress to support Patidar reservation.

The language of reservation, relative deprivation and frustration is a big attention catcher. Hardik combined this with innovative campaign tactics: In 2015, he launched the “lollipop movement” because the Gujarat government announced, to defuse his agitation, a scheme for benefits to deserving students of all castes and categories which was nothing but a “lollipop” to Patidars. He then went ahead and distributed lollipops.

All this is more than Congress leaders were ready to do. Lollipops caught the eye of the Shiv Sena, which announced unilaterally that it would support Hardik as chief minister of Gujarat. He reacted cautiously, saying he was only 23, and ineligible to contest the elections, so could the Sena come back in a few years.

What effect Hardik will have on the venerable Congress with its hierarchies, families, and other baggage is hard to say. He could shake up the organisation as he has no discernible group in the party and is, therefore, free from factional tugs of war. But he could also become a collateral victim of a war for the control that is raging in the central party. Either way, politics in Gujarat has just taken an interesting turn.


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