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Hardik, Anant, Jignesh — young ‘friends’ get Congress in war mode ahead of Gujarat polls

While Anant Patel and Hardik Patel are members of Congress, Jignesh Mevani is an Independent who has extended support to the party. Congress has been out of power in Gujarat since 1995. 

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New Delhi:  As Gujarat switches gears to election mode, a new young troika is emerging as hope for the state’s Congress unit — Vansda MLA Anant Patel, 42, Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani, 41, and Patidar leader Hardik Patel, 28.

While Anant and Hardik are members of the Congress, Jignesh is an Independent legislator who has extended support to the party.  

The Congress has been out of power in Gujarat since 1995. It won 77 of Gujarat’s 182 assembly seats in 2017.

Anant, Hardik and Mevani were seen sharing a stage last week in Gandhinagar in what is being described as an ‘Adivasi Satyagraha’ against the proposed Par-Tapi-Narmada river-linking project in Gujarat. 

At a press conference in Delhi last Wednesday, Anant said that while neither he nor the Congress was against development, it could not come at the cost of the Adivasi communities. 

“The purpose of the entire ‘andolan’ is to protect and save Adivasis. So far, the Congress has organised protests in the districts of Valsad, Tapi, and Dang. We have 14 more protests planned. We will only stop our protest when we are given in writing that the river-linking project has been dropped,” he said. 

In Tapi, Mevani registered his presence. Anant told ThePrint that Hardik has also promised his support wherever required. “Both of them are close acquaintances of mine (acchhe saathi hain),” Anant said. 

“First, it was the Sardar Sarovar Dam, where no water from the dam goes to the communities nearby. Then came the Statue of Unity in Sardar Patel’s name. Sardar Patel would be most upset that so many Adivasis were displaced for a monument in his name,” said Hardik.

Also Read: Eye on Gujarat polls? Modi govt shelves Par-Tapi-Narmada river-linking amid tribal protests

Caste equations

The three make an impressive team in terms of their community affiliation — Anant, a tribal leader, Jignesh, a Dalit, and Hardik, a Patidar. These three communities together constitute around one-third of Gujarat’s population.  

In 2015, Hardik became the face of the Patidar agitation for reservation, declaring that he would fast unto death unless Anandiben Patel, then chief minister of Gujarat, accepted their demands. He organised over 100 rallies in the state, shaking up the state’s BJP government.

“It is this Patidar community that made ministers, elected the chief minister, and ensured victory for the BJP in all 26 Lok Sabha seats. But if you hurt this community, the government will collapse the way a chair collapses if two of its legs are pulled out from under it,” he said at the time.

A former literature student and civil rights activist, Mevani worked closely with lawyer Mukul Sinha on the rights of sanitation workers and security guards. He then turned to law before joining the AAP.

In 2016, four Dalits were brutally beaten up in Gujarat’s Una, causing national uproar and bringing India’s brutal caste divisions to light yet again. The incident became a turning point for Mevani: He founded the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM), which organised a 10-day march from Ahmedabad to Una to protest the incident, and later rose as a prominent Dalit voice, fighting and winning his first election as an Independent MLA in 2017.

Last September, when former Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar joined the Congress at the party headquarters in Delhi, it created a buzz in political circles. Mevani accompanied Kumar at the event but didn’t officially join the party.

Even so, the two, together with Hardik, were expected to make a ‘firebrand troika’ that could help boost the party’s appeal among the youth. The buzz, however, died down soon, and, except for addressing the occasional press conference, Kumar has largely been missing in action.

The last time he made headlines was over an Instagram photo in which he was reading a book in a room overlooking picturesque hills — an image that earned the former Communist leader the moniker “bourgeois from Begusarai” on social media.

Mevani and Hardik, the Congress party’s Gujarat unit working president, also maintained a low profile, especially since the party showed little inclination to showcase or use them to woo the youth.

While Kanhaiya Kumar seems to be reconciled with his new role, Mevani and Hardik have joined forces with Anant Patel to turn the heat on the ruling BJP in Gujarat. 

Born in Navsari, the 42-year-old Anant Patel did his Master’s degree from Veer Narmad South Gujarat University in Surat and his BEd from R.K. Desai College Of Education.  A social worker and popular Adivasi leader, he was elected as an MLA from Vansda in 2017 on a Congress ticket.

Anant has become the face of the movement against the Par-Tapi-Narmada river-link project that envisages transferring ‘surplus’ water from the Western Ghats in Maharashtra to semi-arid regions of Saurashtra and Kutch in Gujarat. 

On 25 March, to protest against the river-linking project, the Congress gathered thousands of people and marched to the Vidhan Sabha in Gandhinagar. Several leaders were detained at the protest.

With an eye on the polls, the Union government has decided to put the Par-Tapi-Narmada river-linking project on hold, but it has not dropped the project altogether.

Dismissing the decision to put the river-linking project on hold, all three claimed it was just an election gimmick “to fool people” and the project would resume once the elections were over. 

However, Mevani said the very fact that the government felt pressured to halt the project was a “small win in itself”. 

Eye on elections, plans for future 

With two of three being MLAs in the assembly, the focus for this troika is very clear — to gather as much support across the state as they can before the Gujarat assembly elections later this year. 

Hardik told ThePrint that the three “good friends” were working together on issues such as the Patidar movement, unemployment, and women’s rights. 

“We are making concrete plans for each issue,” Patel said. 

Unemployment figures large on their agenda, Mevani said, because it impacts everyone.

“The one thing the Congress needs to focus on is the rising unemployment in the state.  We had no permission to hold the 25 March protest, yet people showed up in thousands. This is a reflection of that,” Hardik said. 

Mevani and Hardik have known each other since 2016 — they said their acquaintance turned into a friendship over their mutual desire to give the government a “hard time”.  

“I had known Jignesh even before 2017. We are people who have emerged from a movement and we want more people to come and join us,” Hardik said. 

With Anant, it was the desire to uplift the Dalit and Adivasi communities that brought them together.   

“Dalits and tribals are the poorest of the poor, the most marginalised of the lot,” Mevani said. “It is this marginialisation that has led to such an organic relationship with Anant,” said Mevani.

Two big-ticket central government projects — the Statue of Unity project in 2018 and the proposed Par-Tapi-Narmada project — have seen major protests in the state’s tribal belts. The Congress hopes to use this unrest to its advantage.  

“Youngsters and activists, banded together by the Congress and the sincerity of its purpose on issues, has created the right atmosphere (mahaul) for the party to emerge victorious in the elections,” Mevani said.

There was a churning in the tribal pockets that he had not seen before, he added. 

“Which was why the party will win not just the 28 reserved constituencies for tribals, but all 46 constituencies where there is a dominant tribal population,” he said. 

Mevani was also quick to dismiss the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which, riding high on its landslide victory in Punjab, now hopes to make a mark in Gujarat.

The AAP won 27 of 120 seats at the Surat Municipal Corporation Election last year —becoming the principal opposition party in the local body — a development that has come at the expense of the Congress, which drew a blank.   

The Par-Tapi-Narmada river linking project is not just an Adivasi problem, said Anant — it is a fight for land and forests.

“About 6,000 schools will be destroyed by the project. It’s not just a fight against the river-linking project, but a fight to protect our land and jungles. We don’t want to live in concrete jungles,” he told ThePrint.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also read: Not Modi, Mamata or KCR, Kejriwal bigger threat to Congress now — 3 takeaways from assembly polls


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