OPN Hardik Patel
Hardik Patel is likely to contest the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections on a BJP ticket Image Credit: ANI

When Hardik Patel burst on to the political scene in India during the Patel agitation in 2015-2016, he made quite an impression as a fiery young leader who wasn’t afraid to hold back in his criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its top leadership.

His agitation for reservations for the influential Patel or Patidar community was a key factor in denting the BJP’s win in the assembly polls of 2017 where the ruling party was reduced to double digits — 99 seats — for first time in years, while the Congress put up a real fight after a long time, bagging 77 seats.

But 5 years is an eternity in Indian politics. The 28 year old Hardik, who joined the Congress in 2019 and was appointed the party’s state chief, quit the party and in a 180 degree turn, joined the BJP. As recently as in December, Hardik Patel had tweeted about “fighting against the dirty politics of RSS and BJP”.

Today he says he is working as a “small soldier” under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. It is no coincidence that several court cases Hardik Patel faces were withdrawn by the state government in recent months as he plotted his entry into the BJP.

Hardik’s exit, like that of several Congress leaders before him, yet again reflects poorly on the party leadership which is struggling with infighting and a leadership vacuum. His resignation letter from the Congress was scathing as he accused the leadership of being “busy with their mobile phones”.

What is the reality?

But the reality of Hardik’s exit is more nuanced. Firstly, he complained that he did have a role in the party despite being made PCC chief. He was given an important post at a young age. What exactly was he waiting for? Why didn’t he form his teams, take initiative?

The fact is Hardik was already falling from the stature he had acquired during the Patidar agitation. He couldn’t get election tickets for his supporters in the municipal corporation polls in 2021 which resulted in many leaders from his Patidar group backing the AAP in Surat. The Congress got zero.

The Patidaars or the Patels have influence in about 70 of the Gujarat assembly’s 182 seats. And the truth is, despite the setback the BJP received in 2017 because of Hardik’s Patel agitation, it has more than made up for that. In local body elections in February-march 2021, the BJP captured all 31 district panchayats in rural Gujarat and the Congress got zero. In 2015, the Congress had won 24 of these panchayats in the shadow of the Patidaar agitation.

Why now?

Today’s BJP doesn’t really need Hardik Patel to consolidate votes. But there are three key reasons they have taken him on board.

One of course is to spite the Congress, by taking in yet another turncoat. The second reason is that the BJP is not complacent about elections and they don’t take their support among the Patels for granted. So consolidating this support is another goal. The third reason is to cut Hardik Patel down to size and silence him.

Hardik has been stinging in his criticism of the BJP leadership in the past and they won’t forget that in a hurry. Bringing him into the BJP changes that. And if initial developments are anything to go by, Hardik won’t be such a key player.

His induction into the BJP was very low key with only the state party president and former finance minister Nitin Patel there. The ceremony ended in minutes, It’s reported that Hardik was desperately looking to be inducted into the BJP by Amit shah or the PM or party president JP Nadda. That was refused.

A big section of the BJP is not happy with Hardik’s induction. In fact, with several Congress Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) defecting to the BJP in the state over the years, the BJP has a problem in deciding what to do with these turncoats.

All eyes are now on the Gujarat election later this year where the BJP is the clear front-runner. The party has been in power in the state for 27 years, which is remarkable.

It has steadily seen its vote share go down in the assembly which shows there is anti incumbency but a poor opposition has not been able to capitalise on that. The AAP is emerging as a new force, occupying the space ceded by the Congress. Will they spring any surprises? Watch this space