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Off to BJP now? What Hardik Patel’s Congress resignation means for poll-bound Gujarat

Hardik Patel leapt into spotlight with 2015 Patidar agitation. As Gujarat Congress working president, he was expected to play key role in steering party campaign during upcoming polls.

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New Delhi: Patidar leader Hardik Patel, who quit the Congress Wednesday, is likely to be inducted into the BJP, party sources have told ThePrint.

Negotiations for Patel’s induction have been “going on for more than four months”, sources said. He has also been praising the BJP leadership, as well as flaunting his Hindu identity, during media interactions in the last few weeks.

Patel, 28, leapt into the spotlight with the 2015 Patidar agitation in Gujarat for Other Backward Classes (OBC) status and reservation for the community. His resignation from the party, just over three years after he joined, comes months ahead of the state’s assembly elections.

As Gujarat Congress working president, he was expected to play a key role in steering the party campaign during the election along with other young leaders. In his resignation letter, he tore into the party on several counts and mentioned issues key to the BJP’s agenda — including the Ram Mandir, Article 370, and CAA-NRC.

According to BJP sources, they hope Patel’s potential induction in the party will help it counter the influential Naresh Patel — a Rajkot-based industrialist who is said to wield enormous influence over Gujarat’s Patidar community — in case he decides to join the Congress.

They also see Hardik Patel as a potential counter to the youth appeal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has its eyes set on the state.

A Gujarat BJP leader told ThePrint: “Patel is in touch with the BJP leadership and can very soon be inducted into the party as he has shown an inclination to join it. He has taken the first steps in that direction and further discussions are needed to know his interests.”

“The BJP is a large parivar (family) and everyone is welcome to serve the nation. Patel has shown his mettle by leading protests for the rights of the Patidar community,” the leader added.

A second senior Gujarat BJP leader admitted that top-level discussions have been held for Patel’s induction, though “some state leaders are not in favour of him joining the BJP”.

However, the leader said: “(Gujarat BJP chief) C.R. Patil has given positive inputs about the electoral benefit of Patel’s induction.”

Last week, an old case against Patel and others, related to the Patidar agitation, was withdrawn by the Gujarat BJP government.

Speaking about his resignation, a Gujarat Congress leader said it may have been triggered by speculation about Naresh Patel joining the party. “Maybe his (Patel’s) disenchantment with the Congress was a result of his non-involvement in party affairs, but it appears that he took the decision to quit after getting a sense that Naresh Patel may join the party. In that scenario, he probably felt it was a better political option to switch sides.”

Also read: In poll-bound Gujarat, it’s Patil over Patel as BJP state chief calls the shots, not ‘humble’ CM

Why BJP needs Hardik

The Gujarat BJP mainly needs Hardik Patel to counter Naresh Patel, an influential businessman from the Leuva Patel community — one of the two Patidar sub-castes, the other being Kadva Patel.

The Patidars or Patels are an influential caste in Gujarat, and constitute approximately 1.5 crore of the state’s population of 6 crore. They are said to influence votes in close to 65-70 of the 182 assembly seats.

Gujarat has seen many Patidar CMs, including Chimanbhai Patel, Keshubhai Patel, Babubhai Patel and Anandiben Patel. Incumbent CM Bhupendra Patel is a Kadva Patel, as is Hardik.

The Patels were seen as loyal to the BJP until the Patidar agitation, which is said to have hit the party badly.

Then CM Anandiben Patel had to be removed from the post for her poor handling of the 2015 agitation, and the BJP saw its worst performance in the state since 1985 in the 2017 Gujarat polls, bagging 99 seats against 116 in 2012.

The Congress put up a strong showing with 77 seats in its kitty. In Saurashtra, a BJP stronghold since 1995, the party was reduced to 19 seats, while the Congress won 28. Hardik is believed to wield clout in Saurashtra as well as central Gujarat.

According to BJP insiders, last year, the party replaced Vijay Rupani as CM to placate the Patidar community, and appointed Bhupendra Patel in his place. But the CM is said to have limited influence among the Patels.

The only other strong Patel leader the BJP has is former Gujarat deputy CM Nitin Patel, but he is ageing and was denied deputy chief ministership in the new cabinet.

“Hardik is young, energetic and ambitious, and we need a Patidar face to counter Naresh Patel in their stronghold areas,” said a Gujarat BJP leader.

“In the previous assembly election, the party lost many seats due to the Patidar agitation. While there is no such agitation right now, knowing Naresh Patel’s clout, Hardik will be an asset,” the leader added.

A fourth Gujarat BJP leader said “it’s a win-win situation for both Hardik and the BJP if he joins the party”.

“Hardik is only 28, and has a long way ahead. The BJP will gain electorally by fielding him from Saurashtra or any other Patidar seat,” the leader added.

The other challenge for the BJP is the AAP.

“Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the biggest icon in Gujarat, the AAP is trying to tap into young minds by raising issues of unemployment and education. Hardik has good clout among the youth,” said the second Gujarat BJP leader quoted above. “He can be effective in neutralising the AAP and instrumental in winning back young Patidars who may switch to AAP due to anti-incumbency.”

However, a BJP leader who is sceptical about Hardik Patel joining the party said “the only problem with young leaders is that they are impatient in fulfilling their ambitions”.

“There are many similarities between (Navjot Singh) Sidhu and Hardik. Both are crowd-pullers and ambitious but they don’t know how to run an organisation or wait for their turn,” the leader added.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: Why Sardar Patel would have opposed NPR, NRC and CAA

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