Dhiru Gajera, former Vice President of Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) joined the Bharatiya Janata Party on July 24 in Surat. Gajera, a Surat-based businessman from the Patidar (Patel) community, began his political career with Jan Sangh. Once considered the tallest Patidar leader from South Gujarat, Gajera had quit the BJP to join Congress in the year 2007. The three-term MLA from BJP had rebelled against the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah along with 30 other MLAs.
“On June 11, 2007, over 2 lakh people including 30 MLAs gathered at J D Dharukawala college in Varachha, Surat to revolt against Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The party in the state was divided into two groups. We fought against the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, but we failed. Those 30 MLAs who had left the BJP were given tickets by Congress in the 2007 Assembly election,” Gajera said in an event where he went back to BJP in the presence of the party president CR Patil.
Gajera’s return to BJP is being seen as a move to recapture the party’s base amongst the Patidar vote bank of Surat that recently voted in favour of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in local and civic body elections.
Last month, Gujarat BJP got its largest representation in the central ministries with Prime Minister Narendra Modi reshuffling his Cabinet with leaders from his home state while balancing caste and regional equations ahead of the Assembly elections next year. Three new state-rank ministers from Gujarat have been inducted and two state-rank ministers have been elevated to the Cabinet rank.
Out of them, two belong to Patidar community and one hails from Surat. Parosttam Vaghela, a Kadva Patidar was elevated from MoS Panchayati Raj, Agriculture and Farmers Welfare to the Union Ministry for Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, while Mansukh Mandaviya, a Leuva Patel and former Minister of State (Independent Charge) of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, who also held the portfolio of Chemicals and Fertilisers was elevated to the Cabinet rank and given charge of Health as well as Chemicals and Fertilisers. Darshana Jardosh, a former MLA from Surat is now MoS Textiles and Railways.
Notably, out of 16 Assembly constituencies in Surat district, six are dominated by Patidars. The 27 seats that the AAP secured in civic body polls in February, gives the party an edge in three of the 12 Assembly seats in Surat. The AAP has focused on Patidar votes in Surat since it emerged as the main opposition party in civic polls in February this year. In June, AAP managed to bring Mahesh Savani, a Surat-based businessman, philanthropist, and an influential Patidar into its party fold. Savani, a diamond merchant turned realtor, was reportedly said to be close to the BJP until the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But he distanced himself from the party after he was not given a ticket.
The Patidar community is largely divided into two main sub-castes – Kadva and Leuva. The North Gujarat districts like Mehsana and Banaskantha are dominated by Kadva Patels who also form a majority in the state. The Leuva Patels and two smaller sub-castes – Chaudharys and Anjanas are mostly residents of Saurashtra and South Gujarat regions. Together, they form about 14% to 15% of the state’s electorate. The community has been the BJP’s traditional support base since 1984-85. Congress’s Madhavsinh Solanki, who was the chief minister of Gujarat four times, came to power in the 1980s with his support base and the theory of KHAM – Khastriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim. This isolated the Patels of the state and as a backlash, the period witnessed two major anti-reservation movements, one between 1976-80 and second in 1985, paving the way for the BJP, which had already started to unite all higher castes under its fold.
However, in the Assembly elections of 2017 that happened just after the Patidar agitation led by Hardik Patel in late 2015, BJP considerably lost its support base amongst the Patidars. With the addition of the acute agrarian crisis that affected the Saurashtra region, BJP was reduced to 99 seats, its lowest in the history of Gujarat state elections.
Though the BJP has recovered the numbers in the Assembly over the years as Congress MLAs jumped ship, the support of the Patidar community still remains a key factor for it to win the Assembly polls of 2022.
The Congress that had managed to cut into the vote bank of Patels in 2017 Assembly polls post the Patidar agitation of 2015 had a falling out with the community after it refused to give tickets to the youth leaders of Patidar community in Surat local body polls. This resulted in multiple Patidar leaders joining the AAP.
The party’s decision to dismiss young Patidar leader Nikhil Savani, its former Vice President of youth Congress last month, added to further distancing the Patidar community. Savani, a close aide of Congress leader Hardik Patel, joined the AAP within weeks of leaving Congress. The co-convenor of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) during the 2015 agitation, Savani had become a poster boy of Patidar reservation movement in Gujarat when an array of legal cases was filed against him along with Hardik and his other close aides.
“My purpose of joining the AAP is to work for youths, women and men in the state and to bring them justice. The Congress has a major problem of groupism of which I have become a victim,” Savani told the media after joining AAP in Surat.
Savani's exit from Congress has come days after Hardik Patel expressed during an interview that he feels isolated within the party.
Meanwhile, ahead of the Assembly election of 2022, the politically influential Patidar community has started demanding top roles for Patidar leaders and even a chief minister from the community.
In June this year, social leaders of the community met at Khodaldham temple, the primary place of worship of Leuva Patels located in Kagvad near Rajkot city in Saurashtra region. The meeting aimed at primarily bringing together the Leuva and the Kadva Patidar sub-castes.
“After Keshubhai Patel (former BJP chief minister of Gujarat), the Patidar community lost its dominance in the state. This meeting was held to discuss how to regain the political influence for our community in the state,” Naresh Patel, chairman of Khodaldham Trust, had told the media after the meeting.
“We want our Patidar leaders in political parties to be given main responsibilities in Gujarat. Be it the BJP or Congress, Patidars should get top posts. Why shouldn't the next state unit Congress chief or even a chief minister be from our community?” asked Naresh Patel.
Notably, Vijay Rupani, the current chief Minister of Gujarat is from the Jain community that comprises about one percent of the electoral population of the state and the BJP chief CR Patil is a Marathi, part of a small population in South Gujarat.
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