Addressing a hotly-anticipated and twice-cancelled press conference, Patel walked a tight rope. He made two points - that his "andolan" (movement) is against the BJP and for securing for his community, the Patidars of Saurashtra, a slice of the reservation pie; and that he is not in it for electoral gains - a charge levelled by the BJP, unnerved by the full-throated support the 24-year-old leader has elicited.
Denying that he bargained hard and eventually unsuccessfully with the Congress for about 10 seats, Patel said today, "We never asked for tickets from the Congress. The BJP has created this baseless story. The BJP has a 200-crore budget to break PAAS (his political outfit) and sponsor some independent candidates to break Patidar votes".
This is extremely canny of Patel as it takes the wind out of the BJP's claims that he is an "opportunist" using the Patidar movement for his own benefit. Patel also managed to paper over the cracks in his PAAS, assiduously encouraged by the BJP with its president, Amit Shah, currently parked in Gujarat.
Before Patel kissed and made up with the Congress in public, he gave the party some tense moments and showed off his "dum" (clout) to his community, addressing rallies and declaring that "the Congress and BJP are the same" and that "Gujaratis, considered very clever, have not acted cleverly in the last 22 years (by supporting the BJP)." This tough talk, in part targeting the Congress, posted a host of senior leaders including Ahmed Patel, Ashok Gehlot and Kapil Sibal on tenterhooks. But it all came together yesterday morning after a lot of encrypted back-and-forth on a messenger app. Sources privy to the deal say that Patel will influence ten seats, though not publicly.
Patel will now officially share space with Congress leaders, especially in his stronghold of Saurashtra, though he today dodged committing to joint rallies with Rahul Gandhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will start his Gujarat blitzkrieg on November 25 and is expected to be in Gujarat nearly four days every week after that. The Congress and Patel will need to work hard to counter Modi's emotive Gujarat "Asmita" (honour) pitch which positions him as the repository of Gujarat "Gaurav" (pride) and the "Pradhan Sevak" (No 1 public servant) from Gujarat and a son of the soil.
Self-goals like bringing back the "chai-wala" narrative, courtesy its youth wing last night, are what the Congress must avoid. A senior Congress leader vented, "I don't understand it. Why? Just as people start to look at us, we go and spoil our own case."
The Congress hopes that Patel's announcement of full support, something which he has been evasive on, will be the big headline get of the day. Patel, a confident, earthy, young leader with several wisecracks up his sleeve was a very tough negotiator, said a senior Congress leader admiringly. The same leader says that Patel, who today said he will not join any political party for 2.5 years - after which he will be eligible to run for public office himself - is likely to mature into an important leader in Gujarat.
Bringing them all together also means that for the first time in years, candidates are fighting for Congress tickets and it's a problem of plenty for the party. The Congress has now to reconcile the competing demands of the OBCs, represented by Thakor, and the Patidars, who are clamouring for a slice of the same reservation pie and are quite adversarial to each other. The Congress is worried about cross-voting for the BJP by the Patidars, who have solidly supported the BJP for 22 years, and the OBCs, who are likely to be insecure about the Patels gaining reservation at their expense.
Patel a fiery speaker who draws huge crowds wherever he goes has alleged that the BJP offered him 1,200 crores to withdraw his agitation. This dramatic charge will be repeated at all his public meetings. That may be hyperbole, fact, or pure fiction, but there is no doubt that the BJP is pulling out all the stops to win the Gujarat election, pumping in unprecedented number of cadre and money in the prestige contest for Modi and Shah. The RSS has also sent a record number of its workers for a door-to-door campaign. A top BJP minister was ticked off by Modi and told to go to Gujarat for the door-to-door initiative, already undertaken by 30 union ministers as Shah works the phones and deploys his troops. Shah has also decided that a union minister will accompany every candidate fighting an important seat such as Arun Jaitley accompanying Chief Minister Vijay Rupani.
With Patel's support to the Congress now sealed, the BJP may even pull a surprise and pick a Patel leader as its Chief Ministerial candidate in order to placate its most loyal vote base. Shah has significantly not said that Rupani, who was his personal pick for Chief Minister, is the presumptive Chief Minister this time around.
Rahul Gandhi is spending a lot of time in Gujarat and getting a surprisingly good response, but the Congress has nothing to match the BJP's structure on the ground. "Nobody can predict an election, but I would say if the people of Gujarat decide anybody but the BJP and want to teach them a lesson, then we are in with a chance. As yet, people don't quite warm to us (though)," confessed a senior Congress leader.
The party hopes to gain some traction from Patel who keeps highlighting the BJP's arrogance and the fact that it has taken Gujarat for granted. This finds a huge response in the young voter who has grown up seeing no other party in power. Patel has gifted this as a talking point to Gandhi as they make a now-joint bid for Gujarat.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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