At a large temple devoted to Lord Swaminarayan in central Gujarat, the head priest appealed recently to worshippers to vote for BJP in December's election. The 200-year-old Swaminarayan sect, one of the wealthiest and most powerful religious organizations in the country, is dominated by the Patidar community.
- Hardik Patel, 24, likely to divide the Patidar community's vote
- Youth likely to support him and vote against BJP
- But older Patels don't trust Congress, say he's selling out to it
The priest's request is antithetical to the plan laid out for the Patidars by Hardik Patel, the feisty 24-year-old from whom the community has been taking its cue since 2015, when he coalesced the diminishing prosperity and dissatisfaction of his once-wealthy caste into a powerful agitation against the BJP, who, he says, has betrayed the Patidars despite their long-time support.
Through social media, massive rallies in cities like Surat and Mehsana, and despite 9 months in jail after which he was exiled from Gujarat for 6 months, Hardik Patel has made a single point: that his caste must be included in those that benefit from affirmative action policies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state.
The Patidars have for the last two decades operated on the assumption that backward castes, who are guaranteed a share of government jobs and seats in colleges, are progressing at their cost. In 1981, the Patidars launched a violent agitation opposing reservations for Dalits and Adivasis, and in 1985, against other backward castes. More than 100 people were killed in the protests that sprawled over nearly five months.
Hardik Patel has proven his ability to draw large audiences. To them, he roars, often with a turban on his head though he no longer appears with a sword as he once used to, "Defeat the BJP." He has pledged support to the Congress, though he has neither joined it nor agreed to campaign for the opposition party. Last night, in service of playing hard to get, he was a no-show at a meeting with top Congress leaders in Ahmedabad, choosing instead to send about 10 aides to negotiate what the Congress will offer on reservation to the Patidars.
"The very public appeal clearly proved," says Achyut Yagnik, a political commentator in Ahmedabad, "that for the first time in three decades, the BJP is unsure of the Patidars, its most loyal constituency." The Patidars or Patels make up barely 15% of the state's population, but they wield financial and political clout. A third of the BJP's 120 law-makers in Gujarat are Patels. So there is a growing nervousness in the ruling party: if Hardik Patel is not subdued or co-opted, he could split the Patel vote, despite a proclivity among Patel elders, like the chief priest of the Swaminarayan sect, to remain on the BJP's side.
And here's how he could do it.
Nearly half of Gujarat's voters are younger than 35 - for the Patidars among them, Hardik Patel is top influencer. They follow him on social media, join his demonstrations when he reaches out to them, and identify with his seize-the-moment politics.
Another group in the community likely to side with him is his own sub-caste of Kadva Patels who are concentrated largely in North Gujarat. A majority of them are small farmers and shopkeepers who see no future in agriculture. They want to be declared an Other Backward Caste or OBC. Gujarat has 146 of these already. Together, they are entitled to 27% of government jobs.
The Lehua Patels, the other prominent Patidar sub-caste, is less likely to desert the BJP. Located in the districts of Anand and Kheda in central Gujarat, and parts of Saurashtra, the Lehua Patels are financially stronger and more educated and urbanised than the Kadva Patels. They don't want OBC status, they want all caste-based reservation to be discontinued.
That stand is employed by the Other Backward Castes to claim that a section of Patels want not reservation (which would eat into the share of existing beneficiaries) but an overhaul of a system that has allowed once-weaker castes to become their social equals and occupy top positions in the bureaucracy. OBC leader Alpesh Thakore, who joined the Congress last month, says he finds Hardik Patel "a natural ally" even as he tries to protect OBC turf from being encroached by Patidars.
In evidence of how complex the competition over caste is, another branch of the Lehua Patels from Saurashtra, who control the diamond industry in Surat and have been badly affected by its slump, seem inclined to ditch the BJP. Party leaders are finding it difficult to campaign in several parts of Saurashtra as Patidar dominated villages have banned their entry (Hardik Patel held his first reservation rally in Surat in August 2015 in which nearly 5 lakh Patels participated).
That's why the BJP is not taking any chances and has spent the last two years in trying to marginalise Hardik Patel, aware of the political damage he can deliver. Following the Patidar protests in 2015, in which 14 young men from the community were shot dead by the police, the BJP was punished in local body elections in rural parts of Gujarat.
The Congress won 22 of the 31 district panchayats and 126 of 230 taluka panchayats. Earlier, the BJP held 30 of 31 district panchayats and 194 of 220 taluka panchayats.
It was around this time that Hardik Patel was accused of sedition, jailed for nine months, and then ordered to spend another six months outside Gujarat before being allowed to re-enter the state in January.
While he was gone, then Chief Minister Anandiben Patel moved to appease the Patidars by using an executive order to deliver 10 percent reservation for the Patidars under a freshly minted Economically Backward Class category. The Patidars dismissed the offer as a "political lollipop" because they knew the quota would not survive the courts.
The Supreme Court has set a limit of 50% on reservation. Gujarat already uses 49% of that allowance. Adding another caste will be challenged and defeated in court.
With the Patidars seething, BJP chief Amit Shah compiled his own team in the capital of Gandhinagar to course correct. He started by replacing Chief minister Anandiben Patel (a close confidant of PM Modi) with one of his own men, Vijay Rupani, a political lightweight from the Jain community. But to keep the Patels from being offended by Anandiben's exit, Amit Shah ensured top posts for the two prominent sub-castes of the Patidars. Jitubhai Vaghani, a 46-year-old Leuva Patel from Saurashtra, was appointed state party chief, and Nitin Patel, a Kadva Patel from north Gujarat, the epicentre of Hardik Patel's agitation, became Deputy Chief Minister.
Since Hardik Patel's return to Gujarat at the start of the year, the BJP held truce talks with six prominent Patidar social organisations who then accused him of selling out to the Congress without any firm commitment from its leaders on reservation benefits to the community.
"The large crowds at his rallies are made up almost entirely of Congress workers. Very few Patels are now supporting Hardik, because they know that the Supreme Court's cap on reservations cannot be lifted by him or his agitations. He is misleading the people for personal gains," claims Tejshree Patel the former MLA from Hardik Patel's home town of Viramgam. A trained doctor, Tejshree Patel was with the Congress till August when she resigned along with 14 other Congress MLAs in an attempt to ensure the defeat of senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel in his re-election to the Rajya Sabha. She later joined the BJP. Ahmed Patel won his bid.
Political observers in the state believe that the Congress, while desperate to win the Patels' support, does not entirely trust the community. Long before they became the poster boys for Mr Modi's "Vibrant Gujarat" campaign for an industrialized Gujarat drawing vast amounts of investment, the Patidars were with the Congress. They deserted the party in the early 80s, after it forged the famed KHAM alliance - Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims - which delivered blockbuster results.
The Congress also knows that any attempt to include the Patels in the list of Gujarat's OBCs will be trashed by court which is why Vice President Rahul Gandhi has refrained from talking about quotas in his campaign speeches, focusing more on the problems caused by the newly launched GST tax and demonetization of high value notes. Over and over, Mr Gandhi drives home the point that these reforms resulted in not just an economic slowdown but also crushed the entrepreneurial spirit of the small-time Gujarati businessman.
Under the circumstances, the best the Congress can hope for is a division of Patel votes, a job which Hardik Patel appears to have embraced. "After 25 years, the time has come for us to throw out the BJP and free our community," he said a fortnight ago to a crowd of thousands at a rally in Saurashtra's Surendranagar town. Hardik asks the people - mainly men age 50 and younger - not to vote for the BJP, "even if the party fields my father Bharat Patel as a candidate." They cheer wildly, but privately admit to being confused about whether to back the Congress.
"The Congress cannot accommodate the aspirations of both the Patels and the OBCs under one roof," insists Bhavesh Patel who runs a small hardware business. "The BJP takes us for granted. Demonetisation and GST has really hurt us. We believe in Hardik Patel, but until the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (his outfit) opens a political front and starts contesting elections on its own, what choice do we have?"
Bhavesh Patel stops short of naming the party that will finally get his vote - reflecting the indecision that his community is struggling with. Socially and politically, the community views itself as a single entity and often raises the slogan of 'P for Patels' to define their solidarity - a unity that Hardik Patel could well unspool.