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Despite Congress Loss, Hardik Patel Emerges as Strongest Patidar Leader after Keshubhai

File photo of Hardik Patel addressing a public meeting. (Reuters)

File photo of Hardik Patel addressing a public meeting. (Reuters)

What perhaps signals the rise of the 24-year-old politician is the fact that he has reached out to communities other than the Patidars as well.

New Delhi: In the run up to the Gujarat Assembly Elections, Hardik Patel and his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) were hard at work.

The firebrand leader was holding rallies, drawing large crowds at public meetings in places like Chief Minister Vijay Rupani's constituency of Rajkot West, meeting Patel leaders from all over the state and ensuring that the community stays united ahead of the election. With the BJP's hopes of a victory with 150+ seats now dashed, Hardik has not only emerged as a central figure in Gujarat politics, he is now the contender for the crown of Gujarat’s foremost Patidar leader after former CM Keshubhai Patel.

The crowds at his rallies were proof of the 24-year-old's growing popularity in the state. But what he also demonstrated was reaching out to strategic friends and allies to cement his support base, which was evident after his meeting with Naresh Patel, chairman of the Khodaldham Temple Trust. The Khodaldham Trust is the apex spiritual and religious bodies of Leuva Patels – the numerically stronger sub-caste among Gujarat's Patidars.

Hardik belongs to the Kadva Patel community, which forms only about 30% of Patidars. While he enjoys popularity among youth from both sub-castes, Hardik knew he required the help of Khodaldham Trust to keep the larger community united before polls.

The meeting with Naresh Patel was a success for Hardik. The Shree Khodalgam Trust endorsed the PAAS cause, yet making it clear that they were not for or against any political party. After the 15 minute meeting, Hardik came out and declared that the PAAS had received the 'blessings' of the Khodaldham Trust and of Naresh Patel himself.

In his rallies, Hardik Patel has been trying hard to strike a note with both communities. Rajkot district, the financial centre of Saurashtra, is in the middle of Gujarat's Patidar hinterland and a split in the community is expected to help the BJP.

A wary Hardik during a rally said, "They (BJP) are trying to divide us into Kadva and Leuva. All they do is divide people. We are one, we are Patidars. Vote against the BJP and prepare for change. If you do not, they will think that we (Patidars) are powerless. Whether it is Patidars or Dalits or Kolis, nobody is happy in Gujarat today."

There were many contenders for the crown of Gujarat's biggest Patidar leaders, including former CM Anandiben Patel and Gujarat deputy CM Nitin Patel. But none have drawn crowds as massive as Hardik, who still too young to fight elections.

What perhaps signals the rise of Hardik the politician is the fact that he has reached out to communities other than the Patidars as well. In North Gujarat, PAAS volunteers tried hard, on Hardik's orders, to forge an alliance between Patidars and OBCs.

He has also shown that he wasn't scared from staring down at the BJP from the saffron party's own bastions. Ever since the Patidar agitation turned violent two years ago, Hardik has been barred from entering Mehsana district, which is a stronghold of the Kadva Patel community and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home district. The 24-year-old Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader, taunting the state government and bureaucracy, hosted a massive rally near Mehsana district's border with Patan.

"I have been prohibited from entering Mehsana district for the last two years. So I decided to hold a mega rally near the border of Mehsana. Saurashtra and Surat have done their job. Now it’s turn for North Gujarat and Central Gujarat to do their part," he tweeted on Sunday. Patel and PAAS claim that over a lakh had turned up at the Mehsana border rally, one of his biggest till date.