Rajkot: Hardik Patel, leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), rode into Rajkot city on Wednesday evening to address a rally of around 20,000 supporters at an open ground near the city's Nana Mava Circle.
Patel, who was greeted with enthusiastic chants of 'Jai Sardar', is trying hard to keep the Patidar community united against the ruling BJP with less than 10 days to go before Saurashtra goes to polls in the first phase of the Gujarat elections on December 9. The rally in Rajkot was meant to rattle Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, who is contesting from Rajkot West.
Patidar voters will be a key voting bloc, especially in the first phase, as they may end up being the deciding vote in several constituencies.
"I am not saying that the Congress will come and solve all your problems. But just once, you need to show them (BJP) the power of your vote. Over the last 22 years, they have forgotten just how powerful people are in a democracy," Patel said to thunderous applause from supporters.
"They call me a Congress agent but I am just an opponent of the BJP's hooliganism," he added.
Rajkot district, the financial center of Saurashtra, is in the middle of Gujarat's Patidar hinterland. The two sub-castes of Patidars in Gujarat are Leuva and Kadva Patels. Hardik Patel belongs to the less numerous Kadva Patels. A split in the community is expected to help the BJP.
Wary of a potential split, Patel said, "They (BJP) are trying to divide us into Kadva and Leuva. All they do is divide people. But we are one, we are Patidars. Vote against the BJP and prepare for change. If you do not, then they will think that we (Patidars) are powerless. Whether it is Patidars or Dalits or Kolis, nobody is happy in Gujarat today."
Patel also attacked CM Vijay Rupani in his own constituency. "Vijay Rupani has done nothing for the state or for Rajkot. He is nothing more than a spokesperson for his party. There has been no development in Rajkot or Gujarat. They may have built some roads or built a riverfront in Ahmedabad, but the rural sector has nothing. Go to the villages and ask your brethren what their lives are like.
In the wealthy, urban seat of Rajkot West, where CM Vijay Rupani is being challenged by Congress leader Indranil Rajyaguru, there are 28,000 Leuva Patels, 40,000 Kadva Patels and 20,000 OBCs. The constituency of Dhoraji in Rajkot district has around 70,000 Patidar voters. While Leuva Patels are present across Gujarat in larger numbers than Kadva Patels, in Dhoraji both subcastes are present in almost equal numbers.
The battle in Dhoraji is shaping up to be a Kadva versus Leuva fight. BJP has fielded Haribhai Patel, a Kadva Patel, against Congress candidate Lalit Vasoya, a Leuva Patel. The hope in the Congress camp is that while Vasoya may be able to pull Leuva Patels towards the Congress, Hardik Patel's agitation will make enough of a dent in the Kadva Patel community for their loyalties to shift to the Congress.
In Jetpur, BJP is hoping that Jayeshbhai Radadiya, son of veteran Patidar leader Vitthalbhai Radadiya, may be able to keep the area's 1 lakh Patidar voters with the BJP. But if the PAAS agitation makes a dent in Radadiya's base, the election will hinge on the 20,000 non-Koli OBCs and 18,000 Kolis.