Ahmedabad: The Congress’ decision Saturday to name Hardik Patel working president of its Gujarat unit is a move that goes beyond his Patidar caste identity. The 27-year-old Patel is not just a fiery orator for the Patidar cause, but also talks about issues that affect youth, farmers and small businesses, which have found wider resonance among the people of Gujarat, across classes and castes.
The subtext behind the Congress’ decision is a lack of strong leadership, as reflected in the fact that at least three of the party’s aspiring chief ministers — Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhwadia and Siddharth Patel — lost their own seats even as it put up its strongest fight against the BJP in two decades in the last assembly elections in 2017.
Hardik Patel told ThePrint after his appointment Saturday night that he was not aware of the promotion until it was announced. “I will do the same work that I have been doing — reaching out,” he said when asked about his plans.
Key takeaways from 2017
The 2017 elections saw the Congress perform much better than many expected, given that Gujarat is a fortress of the BJP, which has been in power uninterrupted since March 1998, and had been led by Narendra Modi, now prime minister, for nearly 13 years — 2001 to 2014.
The final tally in the 182-member assembly was 99 to 81 in favour of the BJP, but it signalled a return to prominence for the Congress.
A key part of the opposition party’s campaign against the incumbent were three young leaders — Patel, an upper caste Patidar; Alpesh Thakor, an OBC; and Jignesh Mevani. Of these leaders, only Thakor was a member of the Congress at the time, contesting and winning from Radhanpur. Mevani fought and won from Vadgam, but as an independent who shared a platform with the Congress. Patel was too young to fight elections at the time.
There were three key takeaways from the 2017 election. The first of these was that the Patidars, a community that had showered its votes and monetary support on the BJP, voted for the Congress in a big way for the first time since the 1985 anti-reservation agitation, when it had drawn up a social coalition of Kshatriya (OBC), Harijan (Dalit), Adivasi (tribals) and Muslims — together known as KHAM. These four communities accounted for 70 per cent of the voters, so the alienated upper castes went into the BJP fold.
The second big takeaway was that in Patel, Thakor and Mevani, this was the first time that Patidars and KHAM community leaders spoke in the same voice.
And third, Gujarat was Rahul Gandhi’s strongest outing as the face of the Congress, and many analysts credited the energy generated by Patel, Thakor and Mevani as well as the direct attack on Modi’s policies as CM and then as PM for the party’s resurgence.
Also read: Hardik Patel, a debacle foretold
Since the 2017 elections
The Congress did better than before in the assembly polls, but it still suffered a defeat, bringing Hardik Patel’s juggernaut to a halt. His subsequent attempts to recreate his Patidar reservation stir didn’t get much success, though he does claim that economic reservation for non-reserved classes and the Gujarat government creating a special purpose vehicle for Patidars and others “were the result of the Patidar agitation”.
Patel joined the Congress ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and all the issues the young leaders had raised — unemployment, the fallout of demonetisation and GST, charges of crony capitalism, increasing privatisation of education and health sector — were still relevant. But he didn’t want to contest, and the Congress lost all 26 seats as another Modi wave swept through his home state, with the lowest margin of defeat being 1.5 lakh votes, and 13 BJP MPs winning by 3 lakh votes or more.
Thakor, in the meantime, had quit the party to join the BJP, but failed to win the bypoll from his seat.
Since then, the Congress seems to have returned to its familiar inertia and frustration — eight MLAs left the party, with five of them joining the BJP to facilitate the Rajya Sabha victory of three of its candidates. State Congress president Amit Chavda hasn’t done much of note, nor has Leader of the Opposition Paresh Dhanani.
But Hardik Patel has constantly been on the move, travelling through districts and villages, holding public interactions and meetings, right up until the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19. There were two notable public meetings in January — one, in Amit Chavda’s constituency Anklav saw him speak to the youth and farmers on unemployment and farmer suicides, quoting statistics without referring to any notes, while the other in Kheda saw him being felicitated by local organisations for his contribution to the Patidar cause.
Now, in the unlock phase, he travelled to Morbi last week, to interact with local leaders three times his age and look for the right candidate for upcoming byelections.
Eye on the future
Patel has his task cut out as working president of the Gujarat Congress — eight assembly byelections are expected anytime soon, while key local body polls are to be held towards the year-end.
But political observers say the Congress doesn’t have much to lose in Gujarat, so this experiment may not be out of place.
“The Congress in Gujarat needs young, aggressive, energetic leaders in the moribund state that it is in. With Hardik, the party will have an advantage of not only a Patidar leader, but also a young man who can create and sustain public movements,” said political scientist Vidyut Joshi.
“There are several issues in Gujarat but the Congress lacks the drive and energy to tap them. This boy can do it and he can pull in more and more youngsters. As of now, it is a good decision; it all depends how the Congress capitalises on it and handles several other senior leaders,” Joshi said.
Political analyst and journalist Hari Desai also called it a “welcome step”.
“Forget the Patidar aspect, it is more important for the Congress to have young and smart leaders, and this man has the guts to stand up and snap back. He has much better connect with the people in the rural and semi-urban areas than the so-called senior leaders,” Desai said.
“Another reason for getting him could be to ensure he doesn’t get drawn towards the Aam Aadmi Party,” he added.
The writer is Editor, Development News Network, Gujarat