New Delhi: The Congress in Gujarat is upping its preparation for the upcoming local body elections, slated to be conducted by February next year.
The party last week announced multiple committees for campaigning and election management ahead of the polls.
These will be a crucial set of polls for the party, given how it performed fairly well in the 2015 local elections in the state. While the BJP had retained all six municipal corporations, Congress was able to win 23 of the 31 district panchayats, and 113 of the 193 taluka panchayats.
In the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, the Congress had won 77 seats and reduced the incumbent BJP to double digits — 99 seats — in a 182-member House. The local body polls are, therefore, seen as significant to build the momentum for the 2022 state elections.
Most importantly, these polls will be seen as a test for Hardik Patel — the young Patidar leader who was appointed as the working president of Gujarat Congress in July this year.
While Patel’s appointment was seen as Congress’ radical experiment, party members and political observers said the 27-year-old seems to be “losing his sheen” after joining the party.
Speaking to ThePrint, Patel too acknowledged that his crowd-pulling ability is likely to take a hit now.
“Earlier, I was a mass leader concerning a social issue, now I am a political leader. The difference between rallying on a social issue and political issue is unavoidable, and will show. So for instance, if earlier I was able to gather 50,000 people in a rally, now it may go down to 40,000,” Patel told ThePrint.
‘Losing the appeal of a social leader’
Patel rose to prominence in 2015 on the back of the massive Patidar quota agitation, which demanded OBC status for the community and reservation in jobs. He subsequently supported the Congress in the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, and joined the party ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
But after Patel’s appointment as the working president in July this year, the Congress lost all the eight bypoll assembly seats to the BJP in September.
Congress leaders said Patel’s appeal isn’t the same as it was at the peak of the Patidar movement.
“Patel emerged out of a social movement, a movement that had a lot of momentum at the time. Today, the movement doesn’t carry the same currency or appeal,” said a senior Gujarat Congress leader, adding that his role is only of a working president, and not that of a decision-maker.
“He will have to re-mould himself as a youth leader who is working for the issues concerning the masses, a cause that appeals to more people. He is working towards that, but he will have to start from scratch as politics is a very different ball game than social activism,” the leader added.
During the 2017 Gujarat assembly polls, three mass leaders played a key role in the Congress’ campaign against the BJP. While one was Patel, the other two were Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani.
Thakor, who was a member of the Congress but is now with the BJP, then contested and won from Radhanpur constituency. Mevani fought as an independent candidate and won from Vadgam, with support from the Congress.
According to Prashant Dayal, political analyst based out of Gujarat, Patel’s ‘brand’ has taken a hit since he joined the Congress.
“He had built himself a massive following during the Patidar agitation. While it made sense that Congress wanted him, given that they didn’t have any mass leader, the issue is that soon after he joined the party, many of his followers distanced themselves thinking that this was a political agenda, and not so much a fight for a social cause,” Dayal said.
“In the last few years, students in various state universities have launched agitations demanding more jobs, but Hardik couldn’t capitalise on them the same way as earlier, since people in such protests don’t want political party leaders to be associated with the protest,” Dayal added.
The Congress, however, is hopeful that Patel will be able to weave his “magic” in panchayats and zila parishads.
“The police, bureaucrats, all act as part of the BJP machinery. In such a situation, I wouldn’t say that losing eight bypoll seats was Hardik’s failure. Moreover, in the rural areas, we are very strong. And once Hardik begins canvassing there, we will get even stronger,” said former MP and Gujarat Congress leader Raju Parmar.
Sedition charge, threat of arrest act as ‘constraints’
Patel, however, said his efforts to canvas for the party are constrained by the umpteen charges against him, and the constant threat of arrests.
“I have been in public life for five years now. Of these, a cumulative of at least 12 months I have spent in jail,” Patel said.
He is facing trial under charges of sedition, rioting and conspiracy, among others, which he was booked for during the 2015 Patidar agitation.
The leader has been arrested multiple times and was released on bail in March in a rioting case lodged in Ahmedabad.
Patel was able to travel outside Gujarat in November for the first time in over 10 months, as the high court temporarily modified the bail condition that bars him from leaving the state.
He is also prohibited from entering Mehsana district due to a 2015 rioting case.
“Every time I try and gather a crowd somewhere, I get arrested. Despite all these restrictions placed on me, I try and make sure that I travel as much as I can and meet as many people as possible. As the working president, my job right now isn’t to make decisions, it is to attract as many people to the party as I can,” Patel said.
“At the end of every day, I check how many kilometres my car has driven that day. I then try and take a count of how many new people I met that day and how it will help the party,” he added.
Patel, whose Twitter account is replete with images of his meetings with people from different districts, said he tries to optimise the use of social media to fight the BJP’s machinery.
महिसागर ज़िले के संतरामपुर ब्लॉक में २०१७ के विधानसभा चुनाव में जनसभा को संबोधित करने के जुर्म में मुझ पर झूठा मुक़दमा दर्ज किया था जिसकी न्यायिक प्रकिया को पूर्ण किया। ज़िला कांग्रेस के पदाधिकारी एवं कार्यकर्ताओं से मिलकर निकाय चुनाव में पार्टी को विजय बनाने के लिए संकल्प लिया। pic.twitter.com/2m25A8ZEMu
— Hardik Patel (@HardikPatel_) December 16, 2020
आज सुरेंद्रनगर ज़िले के पाटदी ब्लॉक में सामाजिक आंदोलन के 300 से अधिक मेरे प्रमुख आंदोलनकारीओं की बैठक को संबोधित किया। आंदोलन के कारण जनता को तीन योजना का लाभ मिला हैं। जनता को मिलने वाली योजनाओं के फ़ायदे क्या है, उसकी किताब का विमोचन किया। pic.twitter.com/gss26TaVzf
— Hardik Patel (@HardikPatel_) December 15, 2020
Asked about the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) breaking off its alliance with the Congress for the upcoming local body polls, Patel said, “BTP was never with us, they only pretended to be with us. Now, they will only serve to cut the votes of the Congress.”