Between Hardik Patel And Congress, A Game Of Who Will Blink First

Between Hardik Patel And Congress, A Game Of Who Will Blink First


AHMEDABAD:  Between updates from rallies he is holding in Gujarat, Hardik Patel also tweeted an ultimatum to the Congress this weekend. The party must, the 24-year-old said, explain by Friday next, November 3, its stand on the Patel community's demand for reservation in government jobs and colleges, if it wants his support in the December assembly elections.

It came at the end of week-long speculation over whether Hardik Patel would join hands with the Congress and a row after CCTV footage from an Ahmedabad hotel after the Patel leader denied meeting the party's vice-president Rahul Gandhi. The Congress recently inducted another young activist, Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader Alpesh Thakore as it attempts to rally the support of various groups in its battle against the BJP, which has been in power in Gujarat for the last 22 years.

Hardik Patel knows without an assurance from the Congress he cannot openly declare support for the party as his followers want him to extract a promise of quota for the Patidar community. The Congress is being careful as it has to balance its need for Patel votes with it need to woo other groups - like the OBCs who will not welcome the inclusion of the Patidars in the list of those who get the benefits of reservation.

At rallies and roadshows filled with capacity crowds, like the one he held in Botad district on Thursday, Hardik Patel is delivering hard speeches against the BJP government accusing it of betraying the Patel community, loyal supporters for years, by not granting them the benefits of reservation.

On Friday, Hardik Patel drove straight to a rally from a court after successfully getting an arrest warrant cancelled. The case of arson dates back to the 2015 Patidar protests; two years later he's still a thorn in the BJP's flesh.

His supporters say the Congress needs Hardik Patel to turn its fortunes in a state where it has been steadily pushed to a side by the BJP.

"Congress needs the Patidar community. When a party wants to win election and dislodge the party in power it wants to draw communities away from the ruling party," said Dilip Sabva, a key aide of Hardik Patel.

Mr Patel tweeted on Saturday, "Congress should make its stand clear by November 3 on how it will provide reservation to the Patidar community under the Constitution, otherwise the Amit Shah episode will be repeated in Surat." In September last year, dozens of workers from Hardik Patel's Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) disrupted an event BJP chief Amit Shah was attending.

"If Congress wants to come to power they'll have to be in our favour. Then we'll be in their favour," Mr Patel, who is not contesting elections as he is only 24, has told NDTV.

Analysts say even though some of his aides have left him, Hardik Patel remains popular in the Patidar community. "Hardik Patel is popular amongst the younger generation of Patidars. If Hardik Patel joins the Congress they can attract Patidars who have stayed away from them for decades," said political analyst Professor Gaurang Jani.

Early surveys, however, show that the Hardik effect may be minimal in the December assembly elections and predict a BJP win. "These polls are only with a few hundred people. Even when Narendra Modi was here the BJP barely got 125 seats, so this time there is no chance," said Hardik Patel.

The BJP wants the Patels - economically and socially powerful and a significant 13 per cent of Gujarat's voters - back in its corner, but has not been able to contain Hardik Patel, who has six cases against him, including a sedition charge that saw him spend many months in jail. 

A patch-up meeting called by Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel earlier this month did not end too well. After that, at least four members of Hardik's PAAS crossed over to the BJP, but a couple have returned quickly, one of them alleging that the ruling party tried to bribe him.

The BJP has accused Hardik Patel of playing the Congress' B team. "I am neither the B-Team of the Congress nor the BJP. I am the people's B-Team," Hardik shot back.

The Congress has issued an open invite to Hardik Patel and also young Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani to join the party. Patels, Dalits and OBCs are jointly around 40 per cent of the electorate. In the last assembly elections in 2012, the difference in vote share between the BJP and the Congress was just 9 per cent, and the latter reckons that if it can get even a portion of the support of these key groups it has a good chance.

The Congress has sought to downplay Hardik Patel's November 3 ultimatum. "I do not consider it a threat. He has expressed his opinion. Congress believes in transparency and communication and not in doing deals worth crores behind curtains. Whatever he has tweeted, we will reply," said the party's spokesperson Pawan Khera.

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