For the past two years, Patidar leader Hardik Patel has been non-committal about the political leanings of his movement demanding caste-based reservations for Patidars in Gujarat, but this may change soon.

Since his Ahmedabad rally in August 2015, which ended in riots and a violent police crackdown on Patidar neighbourhoods, Patel’s organisation – the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti or PAAS – has been actively campaigning against the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The Samiti has been exhorting voters to bring down the BJP in the Gujarat Assembly election this November, and has attacked BJP workers during several public rallies.

All this while, however, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti’s anti-BJP stance has not translated into campaigning in favour of the Congress or any other political party. In official rallies and interviews, Hardik Patel and other Samiti leaders have not yet taken a public stand on which party they want their followers to back – even though it is obvious to voters that the Congress is their only real alternative to the BJP.

On the ground, rural and low-income Patidars ensured that the Congress won an unprecedented number of seats in various urban and rural local body elections that were held after August 2015. But for the state-level election, disillusioned community members have been expecting the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti to get into politics itself, and form a third front against the BJP and Congress. Hardik Patel has, however, dismissed all possibilities of directly joining politics or encouraging a third front.

But with just five months to go for the Assembly election, Samiti leaders seem to be growing more open about their pro-Congress stance. While they are still hesitant to publicly proclaim themselves as Congress supporters, conveners of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti claim they are having more frequent meetings with local Congress leaders to cement their association.

According to some Samiti leaders, whether the Samiti will now publicly pledge its support for Congress depends on the number of Patidar leaders the party pushes forward to its most senior positions.

‘We have an understanding’

In northern Gujarat’s Mehsana district, the Patidar-Congress tie-up grew evident in the past three weeks, after the custodial death of Patidar youth Ketan Patel on June 6. The youth had been arrested for theft. His death – allegedly due to police beatings – triggered widespread anger among the region’s Patels. At the condolence meets and protests organised in Mehsana town by the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti and other Patidar organisations, senior Congress leaders made prominent appearances, and the associations between them have continued.

“I keep meeting the PAAS convener in Mehsana, and we have an understanding with the Patels that they are now supporting the Congress,” said Ramesh Thakore, the chief organiser of the Mehsana district Congress Seva Dal, the party’s grassroots activism organisation. Thakore emphasises that his party won 29 out of 44 municipal council seats in Mehsana – the first such feat in decades – only because of Patidar voters.

Ramesh Thakore (right) in a meeting with Mehsana's PAAS convener Satish Patel. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari.

The Patidars, who comprise an estimated 12%-20% of Gujarat’s population, are expected to swing the state-level election as well, and they have become an integral focus of Congress’s campaigning. “Since last week, we have started holding booth-level meetings with voters in the villages, and we call PAAS and Patidar leaders for all these events,” said Thakore. “Congress workers are also being invited to more PAAS rallies.”

In Surat, the city’s Congress president Hasmukhbhai Desai also claimed that Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti leaders have been having more meetings with Congress leaders at both junior and senior levels. “May Patidar youth are now joining both PAAS and the Congress, and our party has agreed to give tickets to Patidars from PAAS,” said Desai, who claims he often has meetings with Surat district’s PAAS convener Alpesh Kathiriya to discuss future programmes that could be jointly organised.

Hasmukhbhai Desai at his office in Surat. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari.

‘Already decided to join hands with Congress’

Up till December 2016, Kathiriya’s post in Surat’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti was held by Nikhil Vasani, a young Patidar who quit college to join the movement for reservations and is now a real estate broker. He claims he eventually quit PAAS because of the group’s increasingly aggressive anti-BJP stance and Hardik Patel’s refusal to “listen to anyone”.

“I don’t think this movement should become political at all, because there are Patidars in all prominent political parties,” said Vasani. “But PAAS’s main focus has now become getting justice and revenge for the police atrocities of 2015 by bringing down the BJP, and I am not okay with that.”

Under Hardik Patel, Vasani explains, the Samiti has a three-member core team of Varun Patel, Dinesh Bambhaniya and Manoj Panara who hold meetings with political parties. “Varun Patel has been a Congress supporter from the beginning. And now they have already decided to join hands with the Congress, even though they are trying to show the public that they are still thinking about it,” said Vasani.

Alpesh Kathiriya, a 24-year-old law graduate and the current Surat PAAS convener, admits that the Samiti views the Congress as the only party that can help Patidars avenge the BJP for the police atrocities of 2015. “But even though we tell people to vote against BJP in the election, we still can’t officially tell them to vote for Congress,” said Kathiriya. “We know it means the same thing, but we are waiting to see if the Congress puts any Patidars in its top tier of leadership, as we have asked them to.”

Senior Patidar leaders in the Gujarat Congress, such as former MP Jivabhai Patel and MLA Siddharth Patel are still not in the league of state Congress president Bharatsinh Solanki or opposition leader Shankersinh Vaghela, say PAAS leaders.

PAAS Surat convener Alpesh Kathiriya. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari.

Patidars and BJP: Two sides of the same coin?

Local level Congress leaders, like Ramesh Thakore in Mehsana, admit that there is a lack of Patidar presence in the highest and most visible ranks of the party in Gujarat.

At the senior level, however, the Congress has already made public its support for Hardik Patel and his movement. In May, Bharatsinh Solanki announced his party’s promise to fulfil the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti’s demands for legal action against the perpetrators of police violence in 2015. The Congress has also promised to give Patidars 20% reservations under the “economically backward classes” quota.

In April 2016, the state BJP government had announced a 10% quota for economically backward Patidars and other castes in educational institutions, but it was struck down as unconstitutional by the Gujarat High Court four months later. Ironically, PAAS too had rejected the BJP’s 10% quota offer as a “lollipop” meant to mislead the community.

Rashmikant Patel, a BJP leader from Mehsana and the personal assistant of deputy chief minister Nitinbhai Patel, claims the BJP is unruffled by the Congress’s success in local body elections and PAAS’s evident support for the Congress.

“The main leaders of PAAS have always had a Congress background, so we don’t keep relations with this group,” said Rashmikant Patel, who believes Hardik Patel and PAAS no longer have much influence with the wider Patidar community. “Patidars know they can never get reservations because broadly, this is a happy, wealthy and charitable community. And they know that the BJP is the only party that can protect the community’s business interests – Patidars and BJP are two sides of the same coin.”