As the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party battles the growing trust deficit with the Patels in Gujarat, the Congress is stepping up efforts to win over the support of this strong and powerful community.

As a step in this direction, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has convened a special meeting with the party’s Patel leaders on Wednesday to draw up a roadmap for garnering the support of the Patels or Patidars ahead of next year’s assembly elections in Gujarat.

Former president of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee Siddharth Patel, projected as the party’s Patel face in the state, is heading this group of Patidar leaders which will brainstorm with Rahul Gandhi about its future strategy in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. The Congress president’s political secretary Ahmed Patel will also sit in on this meeting.

According to Congress officials, each Patel leader attending this meeting is expected to be given charge of two to three Patel-dominated districts with specific instructions to win the confidence of the Patidars who have traditionally been wary of the Congress. In addition, they will also be asked to enroll Patels in the party and also identify potential candidates from the community for next year’s assembly poll.

Open support

With angry Patidars virtually declaring war against the BJP government in Gujarat to press their demand for quotas for their community, the Congress believes this is the right time for it to strike. As in the case of the ongoing Dalit agitation, the Congress has been extending tacit support to Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti leader Hardik Patel’s agitation. The party has been in touch with him through Siddharth Patel who has been espousing the cause of Patels and touring the Patel-dominated districts across Gujarat to convey the Congress party’s support for their cause.

But now that assembly elections are due next year, the Congress has decided to make its next move to openly solicit the support of the Patels who wield immense political and economic influence in Gujarat . Though it has been unwavering in its loyalty to the BJP, the Congress is convinced the Patels can be persuaded to switch sides in view of their growing disenchantment with the ruling party.

It also helps that Modi is no longer heading the state. The Patel support for the BJP had remained intact as long as Modi was Gujarat chief minister. He successfully raised issues of Hindu and Gujarati identity to tap into people’s anger against the minorities. Modi was also well aware of the political and financial clout of the Patels. He, therefore, went out of his way to accommodate Patel leaders in his Cabinet.

When he moved from Gandhinagar to Delhi in 2014, Modi entrusted the state to Anandiben Patel in the belief that a leader from any other community or caste would not be acceptable. It’s a different matter that Anandiben Patel failed to contain the Patidar agitation despite the fact that she belongs to the same community. She has now been replaced by Vijay Rupani but the BJP was forced to appoint Nitin Patel as deputy chief minister as it could not risk the further alienation of the Patels.

BJP strategy

The BJP will work overtime in the coming year to win back the trust of the Patels as their support is critical if the party is to retain power in Gujarat. In fact, party president Amit Shah will pull out stops to succeed in this mission as the BJP cannot afford to lose ground in the prime minister’s home state.

The Congress, on the other hand, feels this is its best chance to erode the BJP’s support base and dethrone its government in Gujarat. It is working simultaneously to take advantage of the simmering anger among the Dalits and the Patidars to chip away at the BJP support base.

However, it will not be easy for the Congress as the powerful Patel community has been a staunch BJP supporter since the party came to power in the state in 1995. Moreover, it has never warmed to the Congress after the Patels were cold-shouldered by the party under Madhavsinh Solanki who worked on the KHAM theory in the eighties to emerge victorious with the support of the Kashtriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims. While the Congress managed to wrest power in Gujarat, it lost the support and goodwill of the Patels.

But the biggest challenge for the Congress will be to ensure that the BJP is not allowed to use Hindutva and hyper-nationalism as it has successfully done in the past to paper over differences among castes and communities. Though the BJP faces a daunting task in Gujarat, party insiders are convinced that they will eventually succeed. “In the end, the agitations by the Patels and Dalits will cease to matter as they will all vote as Hindus as we have seen in earlier elections,” remarked a senior BJP office bearer.