OPN Hardik Patel
Hardik Patel: The Patidar leader quit the Congress on Wednesday with a stinging resignation letter targeting Rahul Gandhi, saying top Congress leaders were distracted by their mobile phones Image Credit: ANI

Behind the resignation of Hardik Patel, working president of the Gujarat Congress, lie many tales.

Patel, 29, was almost thrown out of the state unit of Congress party. Imposed by Rahul Gandhi in 2019 and later ignored, the young man had no option but to resign because he was intensely disliked by non-Patel Congressmen. In his exit from Congress, Hardik has exposed how Rahul Gandhi’s writ doesn’t run in the state units.

Hardik’s surname connotes many things in the Gujarati society. Patels are a strategically important block in the state since the 70s when their financial rise kick-started. It was around this time that Patels diversified and en masse shifted from agriculture to trading. Many migrated to Western countries.

Cash-rich construction industry and businesses such as groundnuts, cotton, and tobacco cultivation made many of them millionaires. Patels were in the fast-lane of success, getting higher education, settling abroad and invested in all kinds of trades.

Congress' KHAM theory

Congress snubbed the young Patel leader because the party wants to fight the 2022 assembly election by wooing Dalits (7%), Adivasis (14%), Muslims (7%), Koli Patels (the biggest caste block in Gujarat) and some OBCs including backward Rajputs and Thakors. Giving a Patel leader prominence, after three decades of non-Patel leadership, would have metamorphosed the Congress politics in Gujarat. No Congressman wants to do that.

The party hasn’t forgotten how in the 90s Patels shifted to BJP and were responsible for the Congress’ downfall.

Gujarat Congress is stuck in KHAM (theory advocating Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim vote bank at core) since the 80s. Patels believe KHAM is essentially anti-Patel and anti-Upper caste political alliance.

Senior state leaders of Congress think that KHAM helped them win 1985 assembly election with record margin of 148 seats out of 182.

Under the leadership of Madhavsinh Solanki, Congress got 55.55% vote share. Even when Narendra Modi was chief minister and extremely popular, he could not beat the 1985 record of Solanki.

Two years after 1985 historic results, Modi joined BJP (1987), leaving the job of Pracharak in RSS.

Then, BJP and the RSS seized the opportunity and cultivated Patels for mutual benefits.

NRI Patels were meantime pouring money back into their respective villages, building massive social institutions. In the early 80s Karamsad had an air-conditioned primary school.

Patels and the BJP

The BJP became their political platform, Keshubhai Patel their tallest leader and Swaminarayan their faith.

From 1993 onwards, Modi, brilliantly, crafted Keshubhai’s public persona and made his Patelian strengths the selling points in election.

Since then neither Patels nor BJP have looked back. Later, Modi replaced none other than Keshubhai is a different story.

Hardik is a Kadava (sub-caste) Patel and is fiercely caste-oriented in his politics.

He emerged as a promising Patel leader while heading Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti in 2015, demanding reservation for Patels in education and jobs. Hardik Patel’s sister Monica couldn’t get admission in a local college because the reserved class OBC student filled the seat. Hardik resonated with the middle-class Patel families’ aspirations to climb higher in life.

On Aug. 25, 2015, Hardik shocked Prime minister Narendra Modi, then BJP president Amit Shah and chief minister Anandiben Patel when he managed to pull a crowd of half a million Patels in Ahmedabad.

Hardik could manage a coup of sorts against the BJP government because the fatigue of BJP’s long rule had sunk in. A tight job market, corruption, unaffordable education helped Hardik build his leadership among youth.

Later, Hardik paid a heavy price for it as BJP government slapped more than 30 police cases including a sedition law. Most cases were of political nature. As a result, Hardik was jailed for nine months and faced externment from Gujarat.

The shock of more than 500,000 Patels rallying around a young Patel leader was so humiliating for the BJP that to cajole Patels, the 103rd Amendment of Constitution was brought in, granting 10% reservation to economically weak people in Parliament. The amendment has been challenged in the court.

The Congress saga

In 2017 assembly elections Hardik supported Congress and became one of the factors in restricting BJP to 99 seats out of 182.

Few months before the Lok Sabha election of 2019, he formally joined Congress.

From 1992 onwards, BJP was for Patels and Patels were for BJP, but Hardik’s demonstration of Patel power was an embarrassment for the ruling party.

However, when Hardik joined Congress, he found that it was easier to fight the court cases filed by the BJP than face caste politics within the Congress. His stint in Congress is a textbook case of how to kill a leader-in-the-making.

Hardik has regrets that Rahul Gandhi and the state Congress treated him badly and didn’t help him fight the cases.

Anand Yagnik, his lawyer told Gulf News, “Congress abandoned Hardik. His resignation will hurt Congress. The elders aren’t allowing the new generation to grow. In Gujarat, young generation doesn’t want to join Congress as they don’t know the party. In such a situation young Hardik should have been welcomed.

"He had the backing of his community. But, no instructions came from Delhi to help him. He wasn’t allowed to have any press conference or public rallies. He wasn’t called in meetings. The party posters won’t have his picture. He is facing 32 cases, stayed long months in jail. He fought alone. In Gujarat, Congress is drowning Congress.”

Political forces at play

Both the BJP and Congress have dismantled Hardik’s dream of becoming a leader.

Now, if he joins BJP his fundamental ideological plank collapses and he will at best be a lightweight member of the party.

If he joins AAP, he will continue facing the wrath of BJP and Congress. Hardik is tired of fighting court cases, so he is likely to compromise with the BJP.

His short-term future is bleak as Indian political culture works against emerging leaders.

His resignation from Congress can be pinned down to caste-politics and Rahul Gandhi’s zero plans for the Gujarat Congress. As far as the BJP is concerned, it is a cold-blooded revenge for the historic Patel rally of 2015 in Ahmedabad.

The contemporary Patel politics of Gujarat has turned a full circle with Hardik’s softened stance towards the BJP.