Opinion is still divided whether this confers fresh stature on Patel, who was left red-faced after both he and the Congress denied reports that he met Rahul Gandhi in a luxury hotel in Ahmedabad on Monday afternoon. CCTV footage from the hotel, conveniently leaked to local TV channels, suggests that Patel did meet Gandhi and not just Congress leader Ashok Gehlot as both had claimed. Interestingly, the owner of the hotel where senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel also stays regularly was a staunch Congress supporter till he switched allegiance recently to the BJP. Perhaps, the Congress, always slow to the story, was unaware of the change in allegiance.
While the BJP attacked saying that the CCTV footage proves that Patel has betrayed his community by striking a secret deal with the Congress while claiming he has studiously avoided any association with the party, Patel maintained that he is happy to meet Gandhi on the Congress leader's next visit to Gujarat and is being undermined by a vindictive BJP unabashed about illicitly using state machinery.
After the warrant for him was issued yesterday, Patel said that his supporters are free to vote for the Congress, while earlier he had said that the Congress could serve as a "chor" (petty thief) to nab or block a "mahachor" - hardly the ringing endorsement the congress is looking for.
Patel's dilemma is that the Congress is still anathema to the Patidars, who have been solidly supportive for nearly three decades of the BJP. With Patel in a loose alliance, the Congress hopes to score in Saurashtra, the Patidar-dominated area of Gujarat. Gandhi campaigned in the area on Tuesday and said, "I want to tell members of the Patidar community that the people from the BJP fired bullets on you but, this not the Congress's way."
Patel is the real thing in a country where middle-aged men are often described as youth leaders and has seen a stratospheric rise in Gujarat politics. He started his agitation in 2015 demanding reserved government jobs and seats in colleges for the Patidars, alleging that the state's industrialization had crushed his once-prosperous community of large farmers and land-owners. The BJP under then-Chief Minister Anandiben Patel came down hard on him: two sedition cases were filed, Patel was jailed for nine months and externed from Gujarat for six months. Yet, Patel who has a dry wit that glazes his anti-BJP speeches says he "saw off Modi's nominee Anandiben within two years and will ensure next that the BJP is seen off from the state".
While Patel is hugely popular in his Patidar community, Shah has been poaching his key lieutenants and got several minor Patidar organisations to say that Patel's support to the Congress is a capitulation to his personal ambition. Three of Patel's key aides including Reshma Patel have been promised tickets by Shah for the December election.
The BJP government has also tried to divide Patel's outfit, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), by reaching out and holding meetings with them. The government has also promised to scrap the cases against them related to their 2015 agitation, but Patel is unmoved. He says the BJP is using all kinds of tactics including divide-and-rule and buying his aides, but they cannot get him to back off.
Gandhi is learnt to have promised Patel a huge say in determining candidates and is likely to announce this on his next campaign trip to Gujarat in November. The Congress' uncharacteristic flexibility is based heavily on the large crowds who turn up to hear Patel.
Meanwhile, the BJP has pulled out all the stops to attack Patel. Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel has a daily presser on the "Hardik betrayals and secret deals with the Congress". The BJP's huge online army has also been pressed in to service to attack and discredit Patel with clearly promoted hashtags such as #HardikExposed.
Modi has driven home that this election is personal, declaring at a rally that the "Gandhi family has a problem with Gujarat and Gujaratis". The Congress, on the other hand, is sticking to highlighting the problems with the economy and the twin blows of GST and demonetisation. A senior leader involved in planning the Gujarat strategy said, "We are attacking the Vikas (development) they talk about which people can now see is a sham but we are not making it remotely about Modi."
The BJP has already said that the Gujarat elections will be a referendum on GST like the UP elections were on demonetisation. This is hugely simplistic, since disruptive economic measures cannot be reduced to a zero-sum game of elections, but like with note-bandi, the BJP is weighing the GST's success in not economic but political points.
So does Patel really have a chance at emerging as a power player? Will he be the X-factor for the opposition in a Modi-dominant election? And more importantly, can the Congress, with its moth-eaten organisational structure, capitalise on Patel and the other two young community leaders, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani?
Opinion polls such as the recent Axis poll say that Patel can swing 12 percent vote share but his outfit, PAAS, won't win a single seat. And even in alliance with Thakor and Mewani, it gave the Congress only 60-65 seats of a total of 183 - the party currently holds 60 seats. We don't know when the poll was done but this would reduce all three community leaders to minor players. Since Patel himself is too young to contest the election (the minimum age is 25), will his call to vote for the Congress make a serious dent in the BJP's vote share? That could be the only impact in what will remain a solid two-party contest. By making inroads into PAAS while simultaneously going on the attack against Patel, Shah is hoping to render him ineffective.
Senior Congress leaders who have been negotiating with Patel say that he is a shrewd bargainer unlike former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and is clear that the Congress has to listen to his inputs on Saurashtra. "He has burned his bridges with the BJP, hence he is looking at us. But he is very demanding," says a Congress leader who has dealt with Patel.
What Patel has managed to establish with his well-attended rallies is extreme reactions from the BJP - for a newcomer, that's the sign of having arrived.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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