Hardik Patel, 24, did not turn up after all for a midnight meeting with top Congress leaders on Wednesday night, called to discuss a political understanding for the December assembly elections in Gujarat. He sent a 13-member team of his Patidar Anamat Andalona Samiti (PAAS), who said more meetings would be held with the Congress and Mr Patel would join final negotiations on whether he would support the Congress' campaign.
- Hardik Patel sent his 13-member team
- Wednesday's meet was fronted by Congress leader Kapil Sibal
- Gujarat votes on December 9 and 14, results on December 18
Gujarat votes in exactly a month from now, over two days. In its attempt to wrest the state from the BJP, which has been in power for the last 22 years, the Congress is trying to dent the rival party's core support bases, among them the powerful Patels or Patidars. By skipping Wednesday's meeting, Hardik Patel, the face of his community's quota agitation, is seen to be playing hard to get to arm twist the Congress into promising more than it is currently willing on a guaranteed share of government jobs and seats in state-run colleges for Patels.
Wednesday's meeting, fronted for the Congress by senior leader Kapil Sibal, lasted over three hours and ended at about 2 am. PAAS leaders described it as "cordial" and said the party has offered three options which they will discuss internally with community leaders and Hardik Patel.
"The Congress proposal has not touched 49 per cent reservations for SC, ST and OBC which exists in the state. The options that have been given are over and above it," said PAAS leader Dinesh Bambhania after the meeting with Mr Sibbal.
Kapil Sibal told reporters that "constructive" talks were held, without sharing what the Congress has offered the Patel group. The Congress leader flew into Ahmedabad late on Tuesday night with a draft proposal on how the Congress will ensure benefits of affirmative action for the Patels if it comes to power in Gujarat.
Gujarat already has 50 per cent reservation for Scheduled Castes and Tribes and backward castes, which is the upper limit set by the Supreme Court. The Patels want to be included on the state's list of Other Backward Castes (OBCs), which are entitled to 27 per cent of reserved jobs and college seats. The Congress will find it difficult to promise this. The party is counting on support from OBCs, who oppose the inclusion of Patels, and has recently inducted young backward caste leader Alpesh Thakore.
Hardik Patel risks the accusation of a sell-out if he agrees to the Congress' offer of presenting the Patels as an economically backward group to circumvent the quota restriction mandated by the Supreme Court. The Patels have already rejected such an offer from the BJP, since it would be unlikely to survive a legal challenge.
"We have rejected the Congress' reservation offer under the Economically Backward Class as it is not constitutionally valid," Mr Bambhania said after the meeting with Mr Sibbal.
The Patels, about 14 per cent of Gujarat's population, are traditionally land-owning and prosperous. For decades, they supported the BJP, but in 2015, Hardik Patel mobilised the community against the ruling party, alleging that as Gujarat turned toward industrialisation, the Patel youth was excluded from education and job opportunities, the bulk of which went to lower or backward castes.
Invited to join the Congress, Hardik Patel told the party earlier this month that it can get his support by spelling out how it plans to ensure that the Patels get benefits of affirmative action. He had backed a deadline with a warning that he would disrupt rallies led by Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi during his campaign in Gujarat if the party did not support the demand for reservation for Patels.
Ahead of yesterday's meeting, he had cancelled that threat.
Gujarat votes on December 9 and 14; results will be counted, along with that of Himachal Pradesh, on December 18.