The Hardik Patel smart card | India Today Insight
On July 11, the Gujarat Congress, embattled by a series of BJP-engineered defections from its ranks, appointed Hardik Patel as the president of its state unit. The firebrand leader, who spearheaded a 2015 public agitation for reservations for the Patel community, had joined the Congress two years ago, but has kept a low profile since then.
Patel, who turns 27 later this month, is one of the youngest to be appointed to the post. A powerful leader who has a lot of appeal among the influential Patels (they make up 15 per cent of Gujarat’s electorate), this could be among the Congress’s smartest moves. In fact, there are few even in the Gujarat BJP today who can match Patel in political acumen and boldness. On the day, he is also a great crowd-puller.
This is clearly the plan, using Patel’s feared oratory skills to the maximum to win the upcoming byelections to eight assembly constituencies in September. The seats fell vacant after the BJP allegedly engineered defections to lure Congress MLAs away between March and June 2020. The defections ensured that in the Rajya Sabha elections in June, the BJP won three seats (against the two it was projected to win) while the Congress had to settle for one seat.
Patel will be an ideal leader to score points over the BJP, putting them on the defensive, especially if they field the same turncoat MLAs. The young leader had supported the Congress in the December 2017 elections and was one of the big factors in ensuring the BJP tally dipped below 100 seats in the 182-member house–for the first time in 22 years. Gujarat’s politics has been in a flux since the 2014 departure of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to Delhi. It has seen a series of twists and turns including two chief ministersfirst Anandiben Patel and then the current incumbent, Vijay Rupani.
Patel was forced to lie low after entering the Congress due to various factors, including some skilful politics by chief minister Rupani (Hardik had gone on an indefinite fast in 2018 to press for his demands on a farm loan waiver and reservation for the Patidar community, but had to call it off finally with very few gains).
ALSO READ | The Gwalior gamble: Why the BJP gave Scindia loyalists a lion’s share of posts in the Shivraj cabinet expansion
State BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya scoffs at the move: “Appointing Hardik as party chief is a desperate move by a sinking party. The man symbolises social anarchy and violence. His elevation will lead to further disruption and finally the end of the Gujarat Congress. “
The BJP also has a few aces up its sleeve to counter the Hardik Patel move. It has two leaders who have the capacity to neutralise Patel, Union ministers Parshottam Rupala, the MoS for agriculture and a charismatic speaker, and Mansukh Mandaviya, who has a good hold over the Patel community, particularly in Saurashtra.
Mandaviya’s status as a leader went up several notches last year when he led the Gandhi yatra in Saurashtra to mark the 150th birth centenary of the Mahatma. While Rupala is a Kadwa Patel like Hardik, Mandavia is a member of the numerically larger Leuva Patel community.
There are also some pitfalls the Congress has to watch out for in Patel’s elevation. Some sections of the party, especially the veterans, may not be willing to accept his leadership. State Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi, though, thinks otherwise: “The time has come for the BJP to pay a price for practising the politics of defection and soiling the once clean politics of the state. In the prevailing circumstances, Hardik has the capacity to rally the situation and help the Congress.”
Subscribe to the daily newsletter for sharp insights delivered straight to your inbox https://www.indiatoday.in/newsletter