Why Hardik’s BJP waltz will cripple Cong in poll-bound Gujarat

With Alpesh Thakor and now Hardik gone, the Congress finds itself robbed of the plank of social justice and empowerment that it had used to electorally revitalise itself in Gujarat in 2017

Hardik’s induction into the party is a continuation of the BJP’s sustained Patidar outreach

A fortnight after he quit the Congress party after launching an acerbic tirade against its leadership, Hardik Patel confirmed that he will join the ruling BJP on June 2.

In a scathing resignation letter, he had taken potshots at Rahul’s frequent foreign visits and chastised the party’s state leadership for being more concerned about “getting chicken sandwiches for leaders visiting from Delhi” than about the issues facing the state.

Since his resignation, Hardik had refrained from stating which political outfit he was headed to. However, over the past 10 days, he did drop enough hints that the BJP would be his political vehicle of choice as he prepares to make an electoral debut in the Gujarat Assembly polls due later this year, which is also set to witness a strident pitch for electoral expansion by Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Over the past two weeks, Hardik had viciously attacked the Congress for being “anti-Hindu, anti-Gujarat and anti-Patidar” while he also paid tributes to the Sangh Parivar’s controversial icon, VD Savarkar. These, political observers in Gujarat, had concluded were clear signals of Hardik warming up the BJP.

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For the BJP that is gearing up to win Gujarat yet again – the party has ruled the state since 1995 – the imminent induction of Hardik is expected to further strengthen its electoral hold over the numerically crucial Patidar vote bank. The Patidar Andolan that Hardik had led in the days before the 2017 Gujarat Assembly polls was seen as the key reason for the BJP losing a chunk of the Patidar community’s votes in that election which saw the Congress wresting 77 of the state’s 182 seats and coming within striking distance of unseating the saffron party from power.

However, with the Congress failing to keep up the momentum it had gathered during the 2017 polls and the Patidar unrest fizzling out, the past five years had seen the BJP regaining the trust of the Patidar community. Last September, in a surprise move, the BJP had also given a complete image makeover to its state government by replacing Vijay Rupani with Bhupendra Patel as the new chief minister as well as appointing a totally new council of ministers.

The move was also a clear outreach by the BJP to the Patidar community as it brought back a member of the community to the CM’s chair after a gap of nearly five years that had seen Rupani, a member of the numerically minuscule Jain community of the state, hold the top office. The new council of ministers too had a fair share of Patidars from various denominations; the CM being a Kadwa Patel like Hardik Patel.

Hardik’s induction into the party is a continuation of the BJP’s sustained Patidar outreach and serves the added purpose of humiliating the Congress further by embracing a leader the party had, till a month ago, hoped would bring its incremental votes of the community. It is unclear – and as per Gujarat BJP sources also unlikely – if the 28-year-old will get a major say in the affairs of the BJP in the state.

The BJP, say sources, is expected to use Hardik to campaign extensively among Patidar youth while invoking the community’s pride and accusing the Congress of working against the interests of the Patels.

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For the Congress, still struggling to define the contours of its Gujarat poll campaign, Hardik’s saffron waltz is clearly bad news. The party has been trying to offset the potential loss of Patidar votes that Hardik’s attacks are likely to cause by desperately wooing another influential Patidar – businessman and philanthropist Naresh Patel – to join its ranks. However, Naresh, who helms the Shri Khodaldham Trust (SKT) and enjoys significant clout over the Leuva Patel sub-caste, has kept the Congress guessing about his political plans.

The 2017 performance of the Congress is often attributed to the party’s decision to nearly outsource its campaign to three youth leaders who individually appealed to various electorally crucial blocs of Gujarat. These promising fire-brand caste leaders were Jignesh Mevani (a Dalit), Alpesh Thakor (an OBC) and Hardik (a Patidar). Mevani had contested the 2017 polls as an independent backed by the Congress while Thakor had contested as a Congress candidate. Both had won. Hardik, who was not yet 25 years of age, had not contested the polls but helped the Congress reach out to the Patidar community while he also aggressively attacked the BJP for being “anti-Patidar”.

Five years down the line, this troika no longer exists for the Congress. Thakor had quit the party two years ago at the BJP’s behest and Hardik is now on his way to join the party.

Mevani is the only one of the three still holding out and has said he will officially join the Congress ahead of the Assembly polls. The Congress is using Mevani extensively in the state, highlighting how he is allegedly being persecuted by the BJP for raising his voice for the Dalits and fighting against the Sangh Parivar.

With Thakor and Hardik gone, the Congress finds itself robbed of the plank of social justice and empowerment that it had used to electorally revitalise itself in Gujarat in 2017. It is banking on Mevani to get Dalit votes and has been wooing the tribals too – Rahul had launched the party’s adivasi Satyagrah from Dahod earlier this month – but it desperately needs prominent faces from the OBC and Patidar community to at least repeat, if not improve, its 2017 performance. It has tied its hopes to Naresh Patel, who reportedly has a strong network in the Patidar community across some 50 assembly seats, particularly those in Saurashtra, but has been hopelessly waiting for him to actually join the ranks.

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