Hardik Patel, the young Patidar leader who spearheaded an agitation under the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti that pushed Gujarat to the brink in 2015, has been working hard to ensure his community cuts all ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state. The land-owning Patel or Patidar caste in August 2015 had launched a massive protest demanding reservations under the Other Backward Classes category and quotas in jobs and education. As the movement grew and a police crackdown ensued, at least 12 Patidars lost their lives. Over the last few months, since his return to Gujarat in January after a prison stint and a six-month forced exile, Hardik Patel has been touring extensively in the state, holding meetings and addressing rallies to convince Patidars why they must vote the BJP out in the upcoming Assembly election in the state. In an interview with Scroll.in, he explains why he thinks the Patidars will listen to him and why this election would be historic.

What are your plans for the upcoming Gujarat Assembly election?
We are working with a single point agenda – to ensure the BJP’s defeat in Assembly election and punish [Prime Minister] Modi. There are 50 seats [of 182] in which only Patidars can win. At present, most of these seats are with the BJP. We are trying to ensure that the BJP loses all its Patidar seats. In addition, there are 30 seats in which Patidars are substantial in number. A majority of those are also with the BJP. In the upcoming election, it will lose most of these seats.

But the BJP leaders believe that you don’t have any control over Patidars.
The fact is that the BJP simply doesn’t have any idea of the kind of hatred it has provoked among Patidars. The BJP is using illegal means to win back the support of some of the Patidars. But it simply doesn’t have any idea that the days of Patidars’ blind support to this party are gone. They have been backstabbed by the BJP. They feel betrayed and are determined to root out the BJP from Gujarat. ...BJP leaders are not being able to hold public meetings in nearly 5,000 villages that have substantial Patidar population.

Patidars’ long association with the BJP has made them the mainstay of Hindutva ideology in Gujarat. So even if they feel betrayed, isn’t the BJP only party they would ultimately vote for, since no other party offers Hindutva to Patidars?
Convictions change as circumstances change. Today, Patidars look upon the BJP not as the party representing the Hindutva ideology but as a repressive outfit that only used them and gave them bullets in return. After all, if 2002 was a Hindu versus Muslim riot, why are mostly Patidars languishing in jail [in the riots cases]? What did Hindutva do to 147 Patidars who are serving life imprisonment for 2002 riots? Why are most of the Patidar youths unemployed and Patidar farmers suffering? They have seen through the BJP’s design. The Hindutva can no longer make them blind because Patidars have realised that election is no longer about Hindus versus Muslims; it is about good governance and democratic rights.

Hardik Patel rose to prominence during the 2015 quota stir in Gujarat. Credit: AFP

But BJP President Amit Shah claims that this time his party will win more than 150 Assembly seats in Gujarat.
He is living in [a] fool’s paradise. He doesn’t know that the BJP can no longer sell illusions to voters of Gujarat. If he is so confident, why didn’t he go for election in Gujarat immediately after the BJP’s massive victory in Uttar Pradesh? Wasn’t that the most opportune moment from the point of view of the BJP? The fact is that the moment the election is held he will be exposed. He did not go for an early election because he is afraid of defeat. I tell you with full confidence that the history will remember this election.

That means you are working to make the Congress win.
Did I ever say so? I only said we want to get rid of Modi. Patidars know only one thing – he must be punished because he ditched them. If that makes Congress win, so be it. The Congress will gain because Patidars want to teach Modi a lesson. And that will be the beginning of the end for Modi. Gujarat is the central pillar of Modi’s strength in the country. He cannot be defeated at the national level till he remains powerful in Gujarat. Ravan nahin marta agar uske nabhi mein teer nahin lagta [Ravan may not have been killed had the arrow not pierced his navel]. Our entire effort is to ensure the arrow hits the navel of Modi.

Will you contest elections this time?
No, I won’t. I am 24, and you need to be 25 to contest election. At the moment, I am only concentrating on organising the youth, farmers, women, businessmen and other sections of society in Gujarat.

Is becoming a leader of the Patidars all that you want?
The issues we are raising are not related to Patidars alone. When we began our agitation, reservation for Patidars was the only issue. But later I travelled extensively and met people belonging to various castes and creeds. Now we are focusing on four issues: employment for youth, justice for farmers, security for women and OBC status for Patidars. Thus, barring the last one, the other three issues relate to people from all castes and religions. In the Assembly election, these issues will replace the Hindu-versus-Muslim narrative of the BJP.