On October 22, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at rally in Gujarat’s Vadodara city, Saurabh Patel and his friends made their way to Madheli village, 20 km away, to attend a very different rally. This smaller rally was by Hardik Patel, the 25-year-old leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, a state-wide forum driving the movement to demand Other Backward Classes status for the land-holding Patidar or Patel caste.

Just the night before his Madheli rally, and less than two months before the state Assembly election scheduled in December, Hardik Patel’s forum suffered a major setback. On October 21, two of his key PAAS aides, Varun Patel and Reshma Patel, officially joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – the party against whom Hardik Patel has been actively campaigning for the past year.

On Sunday, PAAS leader Narendra Patel added to the drama by claiming that the BJP had offered him Rs 1 crore to leave Hardik Patel’s movement and join the party. The BJP then dismissed this as a conspiracy by the Congress.

To Saurabh Patel and his group from Pipaliya village, however, these controversies did not matter. “We went to the Madheli rally to support farmers who are protesting a power line running through their fields, but we also went as Patidars to support Hardik and his movement,” said Saurabh, 26, a farmer and marketer for a private seed company. “We don’t care about Varun or Reshma or any of the others – Hardik is capable and he alone is important to us.”

Like many other Patidars in Vadodara district’s Waghodia block, Saurabh expressed his anger towards the BJP in strong and clear terms. “I’m not surprised by Narendra Patel’s exposé and I am sure it is not a Congress conspiracy,” said Saurabh. “BJP is a number-one goonda party of liars.”

However, Saurabh and his friends stopped short of completely dismissing the BJP in the upcoming Assembly election. Echoing scores of other villagers in the region, he said, “Right now we are discussing voting against the BJP, but who knows? Eventually we will vote for whoever fulfills our demands.”

Saurabh Patel of Pipaliya village. Photos: Aarefa Johari

What drives the Patidar vote?

The Patidars, a politically influential caste group, form more than 12% of Gujarat’s voter base. For decades, they have been the backbone of support for the BJP and its Hindutva ideology in Gujarat. In the past two years, however, the Patidar agitation over reservations has coincided with unrest and anti-incumbency among several other groups as well: Dalits protesting rampant caste-based atrocities against them, farmers distressed by years of drought and agricultural decline, and OBCs organised under Alpesh Thakor, who has now joined the Congress.

Hardik Patel has not yet openly backed the Congress or any other political party, but his opposition to the BJP and the large crowds he draws to his rallies have significantly rattled the state’s ruling party. Drawing PAAS leaders Varun Patel and Reshma Patel into its fold is clearly the BJP’s attempt to retain its Patidar vote bank, but to Patels in many parts of Gujarat, these defections are inconsequential.

For many Patidars, the decision about who to vote for in the upcoming election remains hinged on the charm of individual leaders like Modi and Hardik Patel, the wait to see which party works in their interests in the last days before the election, and on the “collective” decision of the village to vote one way or another.

Sitting on the fence

In Madheli village, 20 km from Vadodara city, farmers who invited Hardik Patel to hold a rally are harsh in their evaluation of the 22-year BJP reign in Gujarat.

“Twenty years ago we used to get electricity all day. Now we just get it for eight hours a day,” said a young farmer named Himanshu Patel. “And surviving on agriculture has become impossible. Every house needs someone to work a private job, and even those are so difficult to get.”

Himanshu’s lament set off a litany of anti-government complaints by other villagers gathered around him.

“This GST [Goods and Services Tax] has made everything more expensive than before, and running our households has become harder,” said Madheli’s former deputy sarpanch Jayesh Patel. “When tractors are levied with 12% GST and luxury cars with just 6%, you know this government works for industries, not farmers.”

Another farmer, Karansinh Solanki, attacked two of BJP’s pet poll promises in Gujarat: the bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai and the Rs 3,000 crore giant statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel on the Narmada river. “Farmers don’t need a bullet train. And does the Statue of Liberty in America serve any purpose? Why would we need a Statue of Unity?” said Solanki.

Madheli’s immediate problem, says farmer Ashok Patel, is a high-voltage power line that the state-owned Gujarat Energy Transmission Corporation began erecting last month through farmland in 10 villages in Waghodia block. “We want them to pay us fair market rates for the land they are taking up, but they have refused to offer us anything beyond compensation for our crop loss,” said Ashok Patel, who already has three GETCO poles set up in his three-acre farm. “We approached our BJP MLA and [deputy chief minister] Nitin Patel for help, but received no response. Then we called Hardik Patel, and at least he came and heard us out without talking about elections or politics.”

Ashok Patel displays a map of the GETCO power line route running through his farmland.

Through Hardik Patel, the farmers of Madheli and its surrounding villages hope to draw the attention of the government towards their plight. However, despite their faith in the PAAS leader and their frustrations with the BJP, they haven’t ruled out the option of voting for the BJP in the Assembly election.

“Many of us have been supporters of the BJP for years, so if the party solves our problem, we will still vote for it,” said Himanshu Patel. “But this party has become very arrogant, so we still need the Congress to be a strong Opposition.”

The Congress’ prospects, however, remain low even in villages like Pipaliya, where most Patidars declare themselves as anti-BJP with conviction.

“We know we have to vote against BJP, but it doesn’t mean we will vote for Congress,” said Shailesh Patel (name changed), a government employee in Pipaliya who did not wish to reveal his identity. “We could vote for an independent candidate or NOTA, let’s see. It depends on what the village and the community decide.”

‘Who is Hardik Patel fighting for?’

In Vadodara city, meanwhile, the urban Patidars of the middle-class Mehsana Nagar Society do not connect with the concerns or views of their rural counterparts, or with the larger Patidar movement for reservations.

“Hardik Patel was a zero, and now he’s trying to be a hero, but it is clear that the Congress is behind him,” said Arvind Patel, a businessman from Mehsana Nagar Society who runs an engineering machine parts factory. “Majority of the Patidar caste is hard-working and well-settled, so who is Hardik fighting for?”

For Arvind and his son Sagar, the recent controversies around PAAS leaders Reshma, Varun and Narendra Patel are further proof of what they always believed – that Hardik Patel’s PAAS movement is merely an excuse for getting into politics.

“We are a community that has always supported the BJP, so even if there are problems, we cannot vote for anyone else,” said Sagar Patel.

Arvind and Sagar Patel at their home in Mehsana Nagar Society in Vadodara.