In August 2015, when Patidar leader Hardik Patel’s landmark Ahmedabad rally demanding reservations and Other Backward Classes status for his community ended in riots and a violent police crackdown, large sections of the community swore not to vote for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2017 Gujarat elections.
With the state set to vote in less than nine months, is Gujarat’s Patel or Patidar community as antagonistic towards the BJP as they seemed a year-and-a-half ago? Not quite, according to Patidars in different pockets of Ahmedabad.
On Sunday, Hardik Patel addressed his first rally in Ahmedabad in 18 months. For the past month, his rallies across the state have gone beyond demanding job and education quotas for the Patidar caste. His focus, he says, is to campaign against the BJP and ensure it does not return to power when the state votes this November.
However, while Patidars who suffered or witnessed police violence in August 2015 are still disillusioned with the state’s ruling party, they also lack political alternatives. With a strong leadership wanting in the Congress, many Patidars are pinning their hopes on the rise of a third front, spearheaded by Gujarat’s new crop of young agitators – Hardik Patel, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and Other Backward Classes leader Alpesh Thakor.
But even within the group spearheading the Patidar quota movement, there are differences of opinion about the possibility of such a front emerging.
“We are yet to decide our political stand,” said Varun Patel, the media convener and core committee member of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, which has been demanding OBC reservations for Patidars under Hardik Patel’s leadership. Varun Patel claimed that Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti might either set up its own political party or support someone else. “We are ready to do anything to defeat the BJP in this election.”
However, speaking to Scroll.in, Hardik Patel appeared to be at odds with his core committee member. The 23-year-old is not old enough to contest an election himself – the minimum age is 25 – but he is clear that the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti is not in favour of “getting into politics” or backing any third front in Gujarat. “We do not want a third front at all,” he said.
On February 7, Patel’s meeting and press conference with Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai created a stir in the media, particularly after Thackeray claimed that Patel would be the face of Shiv Sena in the Gujarat election. Patel, however, dismissed all talk of ties with the Sena as the “media’s imagination”.
“The media has said the same thing every time I meet with the leader of another party,” he said. While he calls Thackeray a “friend”, Patel is clear he does not support the Sena’s sons-of-the-soil ideology which has seen them take an antagonistic view towards migrants in Maharashtra. “I believe in the equality of all,” he said. “My rallies attract people from all caste groups.”
Unlike Varun Patel, who claimed that the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti has friendly ties with Mevani and Thakor, Hardik Patel is more dismissive of the two leaders. “They do their work, we do ours,” said Patel. “The Dalits do have a good cause, but Alpesh doesn’t really have one. OBCs are also suffering because of unemployment, but at least they are eligible for reservations and other benefits, unlike Patidars.”
While Mevani has been rallying Dalits to stir a movement against caste-based atrocities, Thakor’s Ekta Manch for Other Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes seeks to protect the reservations accorded to these sections. His outfit came up as a reaction to the Patidar quota demand.
Rock and a hard place?
Dismissing the possibility of political tie-ups with his contemporaries, Hardik Patel admits that Gujarat’s voters presently have just the BJP and Congress to choose from.
His hostilities with the BJP have intensified in the past week, particularly after an alleged attack on his car during his visit to Rajkot district’s Jetpur town on February 21. While the media reported the incident as an altercation between two groups of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti members, 19 of whom were detained by the police, Patel claims that his car was attacked by a group of Patidars propped up by the BJP. “They are trying to create the impression that Patidars are divided from within.”
However, Patel is non-committal about supporting the Congress. “We will see about that when the time comes,” he said.
‘We are watching Hardik, Jignesh and Alpesh’
However, if Hardik Patel has no plans of positing a viable alternative to the BJP, his supporters in pockets of Ahmedabad seem unaware of it.
In Bapunagar, a lower-middle class suburb that bore the brunt of police violence against Patels in August 2015, large numbers of residents are eagerly waiting for a grand announcement of a third front that will relieve them of both the Congress and the BJP.
“Right now, it is impossible to say who can dominate this state election, but all of us are watching Hardik, Jignesh and Alpesh,” said Kaushikbhai Patel, a medical insurance agent from Bapunagar’s India Colony. “We don’t know what the three of them are going to do yet, but it would be ideal for Patels to have a third front to vote for.”
In Ahmedabad’s municipal election in December 2015, all of Bapunagar’s four wards had voted in favour of Congress as an immediate reaction to the police violence they suffered under former Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel after the August rally demanding caste-based reservations . While they are satisfied with their Congress civic councillors, Bapunagar’s residents are no longer interested in bringing the Congress to power at the state level.
“The Congress ruled Gujarat for 40 years, and they gave no benefits to the Patidars, so I don’t see them giving us reservations now either,” said Valjibhai Patel, a retired textile mill worker from Bapunagar. While he still blames the BJP for the police atrocities of 2015, Valjibhai Patel’s attitude towards the party has softened after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “bold” demonetisation move. “I can’t say that I definitely won’t vote for the BJP. In any case, it is clear that the Congress is not going to win a majority in Gujarat.”
Others, like 23-year-old local journalist Sagar Patel, are certain they want to vote for neither of the two major parties. “We want jobs that were promised to us, and neither the BJP nor the Congress really plans to give us employment,” said Sagar Patel, who has the math figured out for a third front that hasn’t even been announced yet.
He added, “Right now the atmosphere in Gujarat is such that even if the Shiv Sena comes here to contest its first election, it will get a huge number of votes. And then if Jignesh Mevani or the Aam Aadmi Party contest, they will easily get more than 10 seats. Alpesh can win around 20 seats from OBC voters, and whoever Hardik supports would get 40-45 seats. Then they can all form a coalition with the Congress and defeat the BJP.”
Still a BJP state?
However, in other pockets of Ahmedabad, Patidars claim that the quota stir has not really affected their support for the ruling party.
“Hardik Patel is right in his views about reservations, but our community has supported BJP for a long time and we will continue to do so,” said Ashok Patel, a doctor from Ahmedabad’s Navrangpura neighbourhood.
Jassuben Patel, a 78-year-old retired sales tax inspector, equates the BJP’s strength with that of the prime minister. “Modi is a masterpiece. He sacrificed his family to work for the country, and he is more powerful than all,” said Jassuben Patel, who believes the November 2016 demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes will successfully flush out black money from India.
Jassuben has worked in the Gujarat state government under both the Congress and BJP, and believes the former’s glory days ended with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. “Today, at least 75% of Patels and other castes in this area support the BJP, because it is the only party doing real work.”