THE THREE MAVERICKS
The Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani troika has added a dash of unpredictability to the Gujarat assembly elections
Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani—can they end 22 years of BJP rule in Gujarat?
ON NOVEMBER 18, THE AIR in Sarbhan village in Bharuch district was thick with anticipation. The day before, three ‘sex’ CDs allegedly involving Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) convenor Hardik Patel had surfaced and were discussed threadbare on several TV channels. A crowd of around 10,000 had gathered to hear Hardik speak. More than the speech, it would seem, people were eager to see how the 24-year-old would react in his first public meeting since the CDs.
Hardik’s convoy of SUVs kicked up dust as it arrived in the village. As he alighted, 10 Patel girls welcomed him, applying tilak on his forehead, an indication of what was to come. Hardik climbed on to the stage and proceeded to tear into the BJP. “I have lived as many years as the BJP has been in power in Gujarat…. Instead of making a sex CD of a 24-yearold, unmarried boy, the BJP should make CDs to show people what it has done for Gujarat in these 22 years. Why farmers are in distress in the state and why there is joblessness though it has ruled Gujarat for two decades,” he thundered, in chaste Gujarati. The crowd erupted. If the CDs were intended to paint Patel as a sex fiend, they seemed to have had the opposite effect; he’s very much a local hero.
At another roadside gathering, Hardik continues in the same vein. There’s no trace of unease in his voice, no hint of embarrassment over the ‘scandal’. “The time has come to defeat the tanashahi (imperiousness) of the BJP,” he tells his audience. “Using unethical means and misusing power to defeat political rivals reflect its arrogance. The more it resorts to unethical means, the more the people will react against it.”
Four days later, in what is easily the most significant political realignment of the state elections due on December 9 and 14, Hardik announced his tie-up with the Congress. His decision was made easy by the fact that the party acceded to his key demands, including reservations for Patels, setting up a commission to probe the atrocities on Patels post the August 25, 2015 rally in Ahmedabad.
How a 24-year-old, not even old enough to contest an assembly seat, has become the BJP’s biggest electoral headache is certainly the biggest story of the Gujarat elections. But it is not the only one. Two other significant political challengers have ensured that, for the BJP at least, trouble comes in threes. The trio has teamed up with the Congress ensuring a straight fight against the BJP. Alpesh Thakor, 40,
a leader from the OBC Kshatriya-Thakor community who joined the Congress in October, is contesting from Radhanpur in Patan district. Jignesh Mevani, 36, a Dalit leader from Una, is contesting as an independent from Vadgam, unopposed by the Congress. Thakor and Mevani may lack the charisma of Hardik or his pull among the Patels, but are significant political influencers within their communities.
The troika comes as a shot in the arm for the Congress and there’s one big reason why this new front could make things very difficult for the BJP. In the last assembly elections in 2012, the difference in vote shares between the BJP and Congress was just over 10 per cent. The BJP secured 48 per cent of the votes and the Congress, around 38 per cent. The BJP’s 115-seat victory was a close contest in several constituencies, which it won by margins of just 5,000 or less votes. It came after tireless campaigning by the then chief minister Narendra Modi and the win cleared the path for his rise to the national centrestage—he was anointed the BJP’s PM candidate just nine months after the victory. Another worry for the BJP—despite five consecutive defeats in the assembly elections, the Congress has proved to be a tenacious opponent. Its vote share dipped below 30 per cent only once, in 1990 when the BJP and Janata Dal teamed up. After Modi came to power, the Congress’s vote share has never sunk below 34 per cent.
The Congress’s established voter base includes over 22 per cent OBC Kshatriya-Thakors in north and central Gujarat, and significant chunks of the state’s 15 per cent tribal electorate and 7.5 per cent of Dalits. While Alpesh and Jignesh will help the party consolidate its traditional vote base, the alliance with Hardik opens up the Patel vote bank which makes up 14 per cent of the state’s electorate and which till now was a reliable asset for the BJP.
The pre-election sentiment in Gujarat is clear. The BJP is in a weaker position today than in any previous assembly poll. Not only is Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi making an impact, but the Congress’s axis with Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh makes it a formidable adversary. A six per cent vote swing could prove catastrophic for the BJP.
THE RISE OF HARDIK PATEL
Waiting for him in the drawing room of his temporary home in a friend’s apartment in Shilaj, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Hardik’s colleagues are busy predicting the downfall of the BJP. As Hardik emerges, in white shirt and jeans, they all spring to their feet. When he settles down on the black sofa, a journalist in the crowd pops the inevitable question: “How many seats will the BJP win?”
Unlike his colleagues, Hardik is more circumspect. “Let’s wait for the ballot papers to be opened. The elections are just a few days away. What’s the hurry?”
Looking at his short, stocky frame, clad mostly in short sleeved shirts and jeans, it’s difficult to believe the 24-year-old has become the BJP’s biggest nightmare. But Hardik displays a political maturity way beyond his years, something the BJP should fear even more
than Hardik’s hold on the Patels. That, and his astuteness and ability to turn crisis into opportunity. For instance, when the sex CDs surfaced, in an interview to a news channel, he called the BJP “sex CD experts” and went on to deliver an eloquent rebuke. “That’s their main weapon when it comes to putting down rivals. They think if they can’t win in a straight contest they can win by intimidation. These CDs are morphed, but even if they weren’t, does it justify what the BJP did?” Sensing that they had lost the battle, the BJP beat a hasty retreat, distancing itself from the CDs after an initial attempt to exploit the footage to pull down Hardik.
Hardik has capitalised on the BJP’s ploy of strongarming its rivals. He is impervious to losing close aides—nine of PAAS’s 18 core committee members have turned against him and joined hands with the BJP, some after Hardik joined the Congress—evidently because he is confident of his crowd-pulling abilities. At a time when other leaders need to have crowds ‘organised’ for their public meetings, Hardik’s public rallies draw crowds of anywhere between 10,000 and 40,000 in big meetings and 5-10,000 in small village meetings. His anti-BJP rhetoric has struck a chord among Patels, particularly the youth in the community. The core of his appeal is emotional—revenge for the death of the 14 Patels killed in police firing during the 2015 pro-reservation agitation. And who better to avenge the Patels than a leader jailed for 10 months and banished from Gujarat on charges of waging war against the nation?
“Don’t forget the atrocities committed on Patels by this government in 2015,” Hardik is wont to repeat at each rally. “They killed 14 youths and didn’t spare even mothers and sisters while thrashing us. The time to take revenge on the BJP for those atrocities has come.”
Since February 2016, Hardik has addressed 250 rallies, both big and small. There are farmers, youth and women in the gathering. But his core audience almost always comprises Patels. And that is what is giving the BJP sleepless nights. The community has formed the saffron party’s primary vote bank since as far back as 1985 when
Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki alienated them with his anti-Patel and pro-backward KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) strategy. Patels form less than 14 per cent of Gujarat’s population but are a political force that defies their modest numbers because they have a tendency to vote en bloc when they feel strongly about an issue.
And Patel votes matter substantially in nearly 70 of Gujarat’s 182 assembly seats and perhaps less significantly in two dozen seats. Worryingly for the BJP, pollsters are saying that OBC Kshatriyas, traditional rivals of the Patels, are not turning towards the BJP in the numbers it expected them to. Sanjiv Kumar, an independent psephologist, who has conducted two surveys on Gujarat, one in August and another in October 2017, says the BJP’s vote percentage lead over the Congress has registered a precipitous fall from 30 per cent to six per cent in three months.
Hardik’s battle for reservation began when his sister Monica was denied a scholarship in Ahmedabad in 2015 which a friend of hers with lower marks managed under the OBC quota. But that was merely a trigger. The commerce graduate from Ahmedabad’s Sahajanand College had been fighting for reservations since 2014 when he was leader of the Sardar Patel Group, an old community NGO looked after by Patel bigwigs and a watchdog of the community’s interests. A skilful orator since his schooldays, Patel only honed his skills while he was in college and is now putting them to good use.
Hardik comes from a small, tightly-knit family who live in a modest 80-yard house in Viramgam town, 50 km northeast of Ahmedabad, their
More than his influence over the Patels, the BJP’s worried about Hardik’s ability to turn crisis into opportunity
middle-class lives untouched by their son’s new-found fame. Both his parents have studied only up to Class 8; Hardik’s father Bharatbhai is a small businessman dealing in submersible pumps while his mother Ushaben is a homemaker. Sister Monica is now pursuing a law degree after her MA. The living room is festooned with photographs of him with various leaders, among them Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and former Uttarakhand CM Harish Rawat, as well as scores of forgettable mementoes handed to him in functions across the state and country. There is also a large frame with his photo inscribed with the words ‘Amaro Sardar, Jay Sardar’ or ‘Our Sardar, Jai Sardar’, comparing him to Sardar Patel. His father Bharatbhai is clearly embarrassed. “It’s the work of some overenthusiastic admirer,” he says. “But he is certainly a born leader. He always wants to lead and never likes to be No. 2. He has strong resolve and nothing can make him waver once he sets his mind to any task.” Mother Ushaben chips in: “When he was in jail, he was offered a huge sum by the BJP to join the party’s Yuva Morcha.” The BJP denies the charge.
Political ambition is certainly what drives Hardik. He broke away from the pro-Patel SPG to form PAAS before holding his first rally seeking reservation for Patels in July 2015 in Visnagar in north Gujarat, where his supporters allegedly beat up the local Patel MLA. A month later, on August 25, he addressed a massive Patel rally for reservation at Ahmedabad, asking then CM Anandiben Patel to come to the venue and take a representation from him. A savage police lathicharge on PAAS workers and their cars by 4,000 policemen sent the Patels across large parts of Gujarat on a rampage, attacking police stations and uprooting railway lines. This provoked further police retaliation resulting in the death of 14 Patels and one policeman besides injuries to several policemen.
Hardik has seized upon popular resentment over the BJP’s perceived failures in both Gandhinagar and Delhi. He talks of unemployment owing to the lop-sided implementation of the GST and the state government’s failures to grant farmers adequate support price for groundnut and cotton. He effortlessly switches between local dialects as he crisscrosses the state—in Saurashtra, he speaks Kathiawari and in north Gujarat the coarse language native to the region. It helps that Hardik belongs to Viramgam, a region nestling between north Gujarat and Saurashtra (Kathiawad).
At a rally in Morvi on October 31, he turned up an hourand-a-half late. The crowds, many of whom had been around for four hours, stayed put to hear him. “Make those people MLAs who know the price of ‘Favdo, Trikam and Tagaro’ (agro equipment used by every farmer). This is just a government of announcements.” At another rally, he urges crowds to dispassionately vote against the BJP. “Even if my father Bharat Patel or mother Urmilaben contests on a BJP ticket, your only response should be to defeat them”. “The BJP is so opportunistic,” he tells crowds at Mansa where 30,000 people have gathered to hear him, “that if Dawood joins their party, they will say the 1993 blast victims died of Chikungunya.”
“Hardik has an electric connect with the crowds,” says PAAS’s Morvi convenor Manoj Panara. “Anyone who comes to his public meeting, can’t leave till his speech ends.” Senior political analyst Ajay Umat, who believes the BJP has an edge in the election thanks to the Congress’s lopsided ticket distribution and PM Modi’s charisma, still credits Hardik for being “the BJP’s tormentor-in-chief” and says the idiom he is using is infectious.
The Hardik Patel machinery is run by a nine-member core team of PAAS that includes senior leaders like Dinesh Bhambhaniya and Manoj Panara. They control the district and tehsil teams of convenors and co-convenors spread across 27 districts and 200 Patel-dominated tehsils in Gujarat.
Hardik doesn’t own a car but drives in his supporters’ SUVs. His movement is funded by well-off Patidars. At his friend’s house in Ahmedabad where he is staying, his mother
cooks food for at least 10 of his supporters every day.
A series of strategic mistakes by the BJP have fuelled the rise of Hardik and turned him into a hero within his community. For one, it did not punish the policemen who targeted the Patels in 2015. Instead, it slapped sedition charges on Hardik thinking he would break. But months of jail and banishment failed to crush his spirit. Then the BJP tried to slap police charges on him, leaked footage of his meetings with Rahul Gandhi, tried to buy out his colleagues like Varun Patel and Reshma Patel and then, finally, tried to take advantage of the sex CD, which Hardik alleges they themselves made. However, all this has only served to strengthen the halo around him and cement the lore of a 24-year-old David taking on the mighty Goliath.
Significantly, while seeking reservation for Patels under the OBC quota, Hardik has very carefully refrained from hurting the sentiments of other communities. After the tieup with the Congress, other communities too have started flocking to his public meetings.
The tie-up with the Congress came after a Kapil Sibalbrokered formula that would give Patels reservation after a proper survey of Economically Backward Classes (EBCs). Many political observers thought the Patels would turn against Hardik after this alliance was cemented. But that hasn’t happened so far, thanks to Hardik’s intelligent electoral positioning.
While he talks about punishing the BJP for the wrongs it committed against the Patels in the 2015 agitation, he is careful not to praise the Congress. Congress MLAs do not share the stage with him at PAAS public meetings even though their arrival is announced on the speaker. He has been flexible in his talks with the Congress on tickets to Patels. Only one PAAS member got a ticket while three Congress Patel candidates of PAAS’s choice got tickets. PAAS leader Panara explains: “Our aim is not tickets but change of government in Gandhinagar and the realisation of our dream of reservations for Patels.” How will PAAS tackle Amit Shah’s Chanakya niti? “Chanakya niti is no match for the kotha suz (common sense) of the Patel,” says Panara.
Meanwhile, the ruling party is not devoid of Patel leaders of its own. Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel warns that the Patel movement could unravel because reservations for Patels are a no-go. “Hardik is only driven by hatred for the BJP and dreams of becoming a political leader overnight,” he says. “Both he and the Congress are fooling the Patel community because the Supreme Court is very clear that reservation in this country can’t exceed 49 per cent.”
CONGRESS’S OTHER ACES
But the BJP has two other young leaders to worry about in Alpesh, who formally entered the Congress in October, and Jignesh. Alpesh captured the imagination of OBC Kshatriyas in north and central Gujarat after an anti-liquor drive to free his community from the influence of intoxicants and forcing the BJP government to toughen prohibition laws. While OBC Kshatriyas have been a dependable Congress vote bank, Alpesh’s Gujarat Kshatriya-Thakor Sena, spread over 5,000 of Gujarat’s 18,000 villages, has made him somewhat of an icon among women in the OBC Kshatriyadominated north and central Gujarat.
Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor at the School of Comparative Politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, attributes the rise of the trio to the vacuum created by Modi’s absence in Gujarat. “When Modi was in Gujarat, people were cowed down, including in the BJP. Rupani (the chief minister) cannot be a substitute for Modi.”
Early this year, Alpesh solicited his community’s opinion on whether or not he should join politics and if so which party he should join. A vast number of them being Congress supporters, especially in north and central Gujarat, the Thakors naturally advised him to go with the party.
Accordingly, Alpesh joined the Congress, with the promise: “We will work towards forming a pro-poor government with 125 seats.” Thakors comprise 22 per cent of Gujarat’s population and Alpesh’s influence reportedly extends to a
significant number of seats in north and central Gujarat.
Likewise, the influence of Jignesh, a lawyer and Dalit activist who rose to fame when he agitated for the oppressed Dalits following the infamous flogging of four Dalit youths in Una in Saurashtra last year, extends to specific Dalitdominated areas in north and central Gujarat as well as some parts of Saurashtra.
However, when the Congress fielded Alpesh’s name as its party candidate from Radhanpur in north Gujarat, partymen from the town almost revolted against the leadership. Jignesh also faced opposition from some Congress elements when the party declared it would support his candidature as an independent from the Vadgam seat in north Gujarat.
So, it’s not all smooth sailing for the Congress yet. The party’s political fortunes might seem brighter than they were three months back thanks to the support of the three Young Turks, the new-found appeal of Rahul Gandhi and the efforts of party leaders Ashok Gehlot, Bharatsinh Solanki and Shaktisinh Gohil along with their young team of observers. But ticket distribution has led to turmoil. The Congress saw rebellion or serious unrest in more than two dozen seats. BJP chief Amit Shah, on the other hand, worked out a smart strategy to control unrest within his party. He employed specific party workers to cool down the rebels. Some independent political analysts believe that the Congress decision to take the support of the youthful triumvirate of Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh might become a millstone around its neck. “The Congress has had to accommodate their candidates at the cost of their own partymen. I think the BJP now has an edge over the Congress,” says veteran political analyst Devendra Patel. There could be some truth in this, but no one knows for sure. Apart from the opposition to Alpesh’s candidature in Radhanpur, there was trouble in north Gujarat’s Bayad constituency. At Alpesh’s behest, the Congress gave a ticket to a candidate from the Rajput community which has just 3,000 votes in Bayad. The BJP gave a ticket to a candidate from the OBC Kshatriya community which has 34,000 votes.
THE BJP FIGHTBACK
On November 27, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reentered Gujarat after a 35-day-long gap, addressing four rallies in Kutch, Saurashtra and Surat. Like a pinch-hitter back from a break, he stepped out of the crease, tearing into the Congress with his one-liners. “I will sell tea but not our nation,” he thundered at a rally in Saurashtra. Accusing the Congress of playing divisive caste politics for votes and questioning it on many issues, he said the dynastic Congress had neither “niti (policy), niyat (good intention) nor neta (leader)”. He defended GST and said the government was open to making amends and was carrying out changes to make it people-friendly.
The month-long Modi break was part of the BJP’s deliberate strategy to rest its star campaigner until just a month before the elections. Modi’s arrival enthused the BJP shaken by the combined attack of the Congress and its young troika.
Meanwhile, as many as 40 central and state ministers have been deployed in the state to ensure the victory of the party. The BJP’s posh party headquarters, Kamalam, and its swank media centre (started last month), is buzzing with central ministers, MPs and office-bearers from across the country dropping in.
Gujarat is without doubt a prestige fight for the BJP, one it cannot afford to lose. The party is targeting the Congress and Rahul Gandhi, most recently trying to make political capital from his visit to Somnath temple where his name appeared in the register for non-Hindus. A tweet from the BJP’s all-India social media convenor Amit Malviya asked: “Is he hoodwinking the people by visiting temples just for the sake of votes? Rahul Gandhi must come clean on this.”
The party, however, is comparatively low-key in its criticism of the troika,
Several analysts think the triumvirate could well become a millstone around the Congress’s neck
in the hope that their support to the Congress will bring out the contradictions within it. Meanwhile, it has been first off the block in terms of ticket distribution, doing a faster and better job, besides pinning its hope on an ascendant Modi.
The prime minister has reportedly prevailed upon BJP strategists, including Amit Shah, to project a softer image of the party before the people as he thinks that the defection politics and highhandedness it has practised against its rivals could cost them dear. Shah, meanwhile, has asked cadre to concentrate on boothlevel contacts with the voters and try and create a pro-BJP coalition of small OBC castes like the carpenters, ironsmiths and others to counter the Congress onslaught.
Significantly, caste has for the first time in many years played a key role in the selection of candidates, particularly within the BJP. And, not surprisingly, Patels have been the gainers in ticket distribution in both the parties. The BJP has given them 53 seats and the Congress 47, the highest by the party in many years. The BJP has repeated 82 of its candidates and the Congress 37. The BJP believes it is winning 150 seats based on the leads it established in 165 assembly segments in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Gujarat when it won all 26 seats. However, the questionable implementation of the GST, the resultant job losses, however temporary, has altered the situation. Few in Gujarat believe the BJP will get 150 seats, but Modi’s presence has warmed the hearts of his partymen. Modi’s clean, incorruptible image as prime minister is a huge plus and a tremendous symbol of Gujarati pride. It remains to be seen how the Congress tackles Modi in this last round of campaigning.
And Modi is pulling out all the stops, including subtly hinting at the benefits of having the BJP in power in both Delhi and Gandhinagar. “The Congress-led government at the Centre delayed the Narmada project by 10 years by not allowing it to reach its full height,” he told a rally in Saurashtra in June this year. “But we gave the permission as soon as we came to power. This is making all the difference to Saurashtra when it comes to water.” The message is clear. Vote for the BJP and the benefits to Gujarat will continue. But the impact on the electorate as yet is unclear.
“The Congress will once again get a befitting reply from the people for the falsehoods it is spreading,” Chief Minister Vijay Rupani says. “Gujaratis know how their lives have changed during two decades of BJP rule. The time has come for putting the last nail in the Congress’s coffin.”
But the Congress is determined to put up a good fight. It is reflected in the confidence with which party leader Shaktisinh Gohil says, “The change in power is written on the walls in Gujarat. Let the votes be counted on December 18…” It could well be the tagline for one of the most keenlycontested elections in decades.
HARDIK PATEL represents Patels, who form 14% of the state population
Areas of influence
North Gujarat except parts of Banaskantha and the tribal parts of Sabarkantha Saurashtra except Kutch, Porbandar, parts of Rajkot city Central
Gujarat except Chotta Udepur, Dahod and Godhra and Ahmedabad and Vadodara cities Parts of Surat city and parts of Bharuch district in South Gujarat
ALPESH THAKOR represents OBC-Thakors (22%); running from Radhanpur, Patan district Area of influence North and C21entral Gujarat
JIGNESH MEVANI Influential among Dalits (7.5%); running as an independent from Vadgam
Area of influence Ahmedabad (SC reserved seats: 13)
COMMON TOUCH Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigning in Bhuj
SEEKING THE LORD’S BLESSING
Rahul at the Somnath temple