Five years ago, in the wake of Patidar community’s agitation across Gujarat – to demand inclusion of Patels in Other Backward Class (OBC) reservation quota – the state saw violence that had led to the death of 14 men belonging to the Patel caste. The result of the months-long agitation was the rise of young Patidar leader, Hardik Patel.
From kicking up a political storm against the backdrop of the photo of the tallest Patel leader, Sardar Patel, demanding reservation for his community to fasting to demand loan waiver for farmers against the backdrop of photos of an entire pantheon of leaders – Gandhi, Shivaji, Ambedkar, Sardar Patel and Bhagat Singh – Hardik Patel has paved his way, improvising his narrative to join mainstream politics. On March 12, Patel finally declared his political allegiance, and joined Congress ahead of Lok Sabha polls. The 26-year-old Patel leader will reportedly contest the upcoming Parliamentary election from Jamnagar constituency in Saurashtra region or Unjha in North Gujarat, a constituency where Patels form decisive electoral voter group.
Patels, of both Kadva and Leuva sub-castes, who form about 14 per cent of the electoral population in Gujarat, have been a loyal vote bank of the BJP since 1984-85 owing to the four-time CM of Gujarat Madhavsinh Solanki’s KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) policy of creating vote bank for Congress that alienated Patidars from the party. However, post Patidar agitation in 2015, led by Hardik Patel, BJP has been struggling to retain the Patel vote.
The Congress had won five district panchayats and 27 taluka panchayats, all wrested from BJP in 2015 local body elections. Thereafter, in 2017 assembly elections, the BJP tally went down from 117 to 99 seats.
Notably, this is not the first time that the BJP in Gujarat is facing such conundrum. In 2012, when former CM and veteran leader Keshubhai Patel formed his own party and contested elections, BJP had lost major chunk of Patel votes at seats where Keshubhai’s party – Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) – had a candidate.
Narendra Modi, then the CM of Gujarat had successfully consolidated non-Patel votes and won. This time, however, it is PM Narendra Modi’s fate at stake, and the party can’t afford to lose none of the 26 Lok Sabha seats that BJP currently has in its fold.
Patidar sub-castes polemics
The Patels are divided into two main sub-castes – Kadva and Leuva and the two small sub-castes – Chaudharys and Anjanas. Together, they form about 15 percent of electoral population across the state.
In 2015, in course of the agitation, Hardik Patel, a Kadva Patel had managed win over the entire community irrespective of the sub-castes. However, as the movement cooled down, Hardik’s support base primarily remained restricted to Patel youths. When Anandiben Patel-led government declared to extend 10 per cent quota for non-reserved categories on the basis of their annual income, the quota stir was over for Patidars.
Apart from the huge reception Hardik received in July 2016 after being released from Lajpore jail, Surat, after nine-month imprisonment in connection with the sedition cases, the firebrand Patel leader has been unable to create the magic of 2015. In 2018, his attempts to revive his support base and the movement through hunger strike also received a tepid response.
As Hardik struggled to keep his movement afloat, BJP has left no stone unturned in attempting to regain the hold on its once loyal vote bank.
In January 2018, Mahatma Mandir, a Gujarat government facility at Gandhinagar that hosts Vibrant Gujarat Summit, hosted Patidar Global Business Summit, which was inaugurated by CM Vijay Rupani in presence of large numbers of his cabinet ministers. Later, from the platform of the summit Patidar businessmen pledged to provide jobs to 10 lakh Patidar youths by 2026 while also pledging to hold the summit every two years alternating with biennial Vibrant Gujarat Summit until 2026.
In March this year, during his two-day tour to Gujarat, PM Narendra Modi performed groundbreaking ceremony of Rs 1000-crore Vishwa Umiya Dham temple near Ahmedabad and inaugurated Rs 50-crore Annapurnadham near Gandhinagar. Umiya temple is revered among Kadva Patels while Goddess Annapurna is worshipped by Leuva Patels.
However, Patidars, as a community, are not economically homogenous and comprise small-scale farmers, affluent land owners and farmers, small businessmen as well as well-to-do businessmen like textile and diamond traders. While BJP found a way to reach out to the affluent and middle-class businessmen amongst Patidars, economically lower stratum of Patels, especially the farmers of the community, primarily in Saurashtra region, remain disillusioned with the party.
Also read: The Reality of Vibrant Gujarat Is Not as Vibrant
Hardik factor and farmers against BJP in Saurashtra
Saurashtra, a primarily agriculture-dependent region had remained a BJP stronghold since 1995. However, owing to the water scarcity and agrarian crisis in the arid region, adding to the aftermath of the Patidar agitation, BJP did not fare well in 2017 assembly elections.
Out of 47 assembly seats in the region, Congress had won 28, reducing the BJP tally to 19 seats from 30. Out of the 26 Lok Sabha seats, Jamnagar, Rajkot, Amreli, Surendranagar, Bhavnagar, Junagadh and Porbandar seats fall under this region.
BJP had lost all the seven assembly seats that fall under Junagadh Lok Sabha seat. Out of seven assembly seats in Porbandar, the BJP had won four, the Congress had won two, while the NCP had won one. In Amreli Lok Sabha seats, BJP had won two out of seven assembly seats, and Congress had won remaining five. In Rajkot Lok Sabha constituency, out of seven, BJP had won four seats in urban areas while Congress had won three seats in rural areas. In Surendranagar Lok Sabha constituency, out of seven seats, BJP had only one seat in the urban area while Congress won all six seats falling under the rural area.
With reports of Hardik Patel likely to contest Lok Sabha polls from Saurashtra, BJP’s chances in the region have become scarce. Though Hardik belongs to Kadva Patel community and Saurashtra is dominated by Leuva Patels, inclusion of farmers’ issue in his narrative can prove to be helpful for the Patel leader.
Notably, two major land-related protests have been simmering in Bhavnagar district of Saurashtra region where Gujarat government has dealt with the issue with brute police force. While no BJP leader has met the protesting farmers, Hardik and other Congress leaders have visited them.
However, farmers of Saurashtra belong to both Patel community and Koli, an OBC community. While Hardik may have Patels in his favour, BJP has begun consolidating OBC vote bank of the region. BJP has been on a recruiting spree of defecting OBC Congress MLAs from Saurashtra region. Since July last year, four MLAs of the region - Kuvarji Bavaliya, Jawahar Chavda, Parsottam Sabariya and Vallabhbhai Dharaviya have joined BJP, all of whom belong to OBC communities.
Hardik’s conviction in 2015 rioting case
In July last year, a sessions court in Visnagar, Gujarat had sentenced Hardik Patel to two years’ imprisonment for rioting and arson in Visnagar town in 2015 during peak of Patidar quota stir.
Gujarat High Court had granted bail to Hardik, and also suspended his two year sentence in August. However, his conviction was not stayed by the court. The Patidar leader moved to High Court to stay his conviction after he joined Congress and announced that he will contest the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
The Gujarat High Court, responding to the petition moved by Patel, has asked the state government to file an affidavit in the matter.
If the conviction is not stayed, Hardik will be disqualified to contest the polls under the provisions of Representations of People Act.
Also read: Elections 2019: BJP Hopes to Balance Loss of Patel Votes as OBC Cong MLAs Defect