On the morning of April 3, nearly 2,000 men and women sat in the middle of Sudama Chowk in Porbandar, Gujarat, waiting for a Congress rally to begin. It was being held in honour of the legislator Lalit Vasoya, who was about to file his nomination as a Congress candidate for the Porbandar Lok Sabha seat in the 2019 general election.

As the rally began, however, it became clear that Vasoya was not the leader for whom organisers were drumming up excitement. “Our star campaigner Hardik Patel will be arriving soon!” an announcer repeatedly told the audience.

He notched up the energy even further. “We have received reports that there are five or six paid BJP workers planted in this audience who plan to shout ‘Modi, Modi’ when Hardik arrives,” the announcer said. “We request those people to leave right away.”

When the 25-year-old Patidar leader finally arrived, there were no hecklers disrupting the enthusiastic cheers. Four days later, when he made an entrance as the star attraction at a small Congress rally in Mumbai, Hardik Patel was given a similar welcome. At both the events, audiences heard him intently, laughed at his jokes, and began leaving soon after his speeches.

“I came especially to listen to Hardik not because he belongs to the Congress, but because he is showing the youth the way forward,” said Anil Tilara, a middle-aged farmer from Porbandar who attended the April 3 rally. “He has proved that [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi did not do enough to give young people jobs and education.”

While it is hard to predict the impact that Hardik Patel might have on the Congress’s fortunes in this election, the response to his rallies indicates that he has managed to impress a section of disgruntled voters across age and caste groups.

Hardik Patel, centre, and Lalit Vasoya, second from left, at the Porbandar Congress rally on April 3. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari

‘People ask me why I joined the Congress’

Hardik Patel rose to fame as the poster boy of Gujarat’s Patidar or Patel community in 2015, when he spearheaded a movement to demand caste-based reservation for Patidar students and job-seekers. Thousands of Patidar youth were attracted by his oratory skills and to the cause he was championing. Though he was nitially non-partisan, Hardik Patel campaigned against the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2017 Gujarat Assembly election. His influence was enough to cause a political rift among the Patels, who have traditionally been staunch supporters of the Hindutva party.

Hardik Patel formally joined the Congress in March, keen to become one of the 2019 election’s youngest contestants. But his attempt to contest from Jamnagar was cut short by the Gujarat High Court, which refused to stay his conviction in a rioting and arson case from 2015, when one of his rallies had turned violent.

Since then, the Congress has leveraged Hardik Patel’s fame at several rallies across western India, to attract not just the Patidar vote but youth votes in general. At the rally in Mumbai on April 7, for instance, local Congress leaders described him as “desh ki dhadkan”, or the nation’s heartbeat, and as an inspirational leader who will “write the country’s destiny”.

Hardik Patel has embraced this stardom, and uses his rallies to make high-pitched attacks on the BJP. “People often ask me why I joined the Congress,” he said in both Porbandar and Mumbai. “I tell them this is the party of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Nehru and Lala Lajpatrai. This is not the party that killed Gandhi.” (Although technically incorrect, this remark refers to the fact that Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a member of the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.)

People craning their necks to get a glimpse of Hardik Patel at the Congress rally in Porbandar. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari

‘Hardik is Modi ka baap’

Up until 2017, Hardik Patel’s public speeches focused almost entirely on the Patidar agitation for reservation and the alleged lack of merit-based jobs for the community. Now that the Gujarat government has introduced a 10% quota in education and jobs for the economically backward classes, his speeches focus heavily on agricultural distress across India and the general lack of jobs for all youth.

“I know computer engineers in this region who are driving rickshaws because there are no other jobs,” said Ashwin Mohan Patel, a cotton and groundnut farmer who had come for Hardik Patel’s Porbandar rally from the neighbouring district of Rajkot.

As a farmer, Ashwin Patel claimed his condition has worsened in the past five years of the BJP government. “I like Hardik because he raises all these issues that concern us in his campaigns,” he added.

Standing with a group of other farmers from Rajkot, Bavanji Mavani explained the reasons behind the farming crisis: the government’s minimum support prices for local crops like groundnut, cotton and wheat have barely increased in the last five years while fertiliser costs have skyrocketed.

Mavani is waiting for crop loss compensation worth several lakh rupees after his crops failed because of a drought two years ago. “It is good to see a young leader like Hardik Patel questioning the BJP government about all this so openly,” said Mavani, who claimed that he used to be a BJP worker but left the party 10 years ago. “I have been listening to Hardik’s speeches for years and I think he is Modi ka baap [Modi’s father] in his style of talking. He is the only one who can give a fitting response to Modi.”

Bavanji Mavani is a farmer in Rajkot. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari

‘Hardik is a hero’

Like the farmers, Porbandar city resident Sanjay Parmar had a very specific reason for supporting Hardik Patel and the Congress. Parmar has been a cable operator for 22 years and is upset with the new rules introduced by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. The rules require consumers to pay a different rate for each television channel they purchase, making cable TV more expensive than before.

“Many people like me are upset with the BJP government, but we feel pressure to support them in public. I am known to a lot of local authorities in this town, so if word gets around that I am supporting the Congress, I will face a lot of questions,” said Parmar, who claimed that he went to the Porbandar Congress rally to listen to Lalit Vasoya, but returned feeling great admiration for Hardik Patel. “Hardik is a hero. I was sceptical when he first joined politics, but he definitely has a future in this field. He has the guts to openly say what many of us are feeling.”

In Mumbai, Ashok Yadav, 35, was similarly impressed by Hardik Patel. The lawyer said he attended the Congress rally to listen to Sanjay Nirupam, the former MP who is contesting from Mumbai North West constituency, but was drawn into Hardik Patel’s speech. “Even though I don’t agree with all his views about reservation, it is sad that Hardik has not been allowed to contest in this election,” said Yadav. “He has so much potential.”

Ashok Yadav, a lawyer, at the Congress rally in Mumbai. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari

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