'Weak' Caste Identity, OBC Rebels: Will Cong's Hardik Gamble Pay Off Amid Simmering Poll Problems?
Many in the OBC community are particularly angry with Hardik Patel. His agitation for inclusion of Patidars in the OBC reservation hasn’t gone down well with members of the community, which is numerically significant.
In his very brief public life, starting from an activist leading the Patidar agitation in August 2015 to joining the Congress party three days ago as MP ticket hopeful, 26 year-old Hardik Patel has achieved tremendous political growth.
But can his good fortunes drive home the grand old party in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls?
To be sure, it’s a big gambit with no guaranteed dividends. The first risk is of Hardik being reduced to his sub-caste.
Hardik Patel belongs to the numerically less significant Kadva Patel sub-caste. Leuva and Kadva are the most dominant sub-castes of Patidars. The others — Kadvas, who’ve thrown up leaders like Keshubhai Patel and Gordhan Zadaphia, are twice as many as Leuva Patels. In all Patels make only 12-14% of Gujarat’s population.
“Till now Hardik Patel could be seen as the leader of Patidars, both Leuvas and Kadvas. But now he will be reduced to his sub-caste identity. He will not have the pan-Gujarat appeal that he once enjoyed,” said a senior leader in BJP’s state unit.
But being from a numerically weaker sub-caste may not be the biggest concern for him or for his party. By inducting Hardik Patel, the Congress has also risked reverse polarisation of the 40-45% OBCs, who have a political aversion to Patidars, towards the BJP.
The 20-22% OBC chunk of Koli and Thakore community members have in last several elections shown a politically opposite movement to the one opted by Patidars. The most recent of which could be seen in assembly elections.
“Patidar movement was strongest in Northern Gujarat. That’s where PAAS drew its staunchest support from, while campaigning against the BJP. What happened at the end? BJP won every seat in that region except one. What happened in Surat? Thakores and Kolis rebelled openly,” says Sukhdev Patel, a social worker.
Many in the OBC community are particularly angry with Hardik Patel. His agitation for inclusion of Patidars in the OBC reservation hasn’t gone down well with members of the community which is numerically significant.
So what are the upsides to his grand entry, presided over by party President Rahul Gandhi, in the Congress?
“It is true that there are chances of reverse caste polarisation but the party felt a need to bank on a popular face. And Hardik gives Congress that face not just in Gujarat but outside as well,” said a source in Congress.
According to this source, the party was planning on using him for its campaigns in East UP and Madhya Pradesh, a wish that he himself has expressed in the past.
“Plus the party needed to show that people aren’t only leaving Congress. Some people are joining it as well,” the source added.
In the last one month, five Congressmen have resigned as MLAs and defected to the BJP — Kunwarji Bavaliya from Jasdan Assembly constituency in Rajkot, Ashaben Patel from Unjha (part of Mehsana LS seat), Javahar Chavda from Manavadar (Porbandar), Parsottam Sabariya from Dhrangadhra (Surendranagar) and Vallabh Dharaviya from Jamnagar (Rural) constituency.
Bavaliya who comes from the Koli community and Chavda who is also a popular OBC leader, are now Cabinet ministers in the Vijay Rupani government. Most of the Congress defectors to the BJP in recent few months are from the OBC community.
But there are other upsides to recruiting Hardik Patel, as well.
Hardik Patel drew huge crowds during his campaigns across the state and many would argue was among the biggest crowd-pullers. Also, Hardik Patel has arguably broadened his political activism from just Patidar community to farmers and the jobless youth.
Since September last year, 26 farmers have committed suicide in Saurashtra alone and Hardik Patel as a campaigner who in 2017 assembly elections also raised the issue of farm distress. Hence, he becomes quite important voice at this time.
Also, BJP leader’s assertion that Hardik Patel will now be reduced to just a leader of Kadva Patels is not founded on any evidence till now. Along with Alpesh Thakor, whom Congress will be banking on influencing a chunk of the OBC community, and Jignesh Mewani, who could mobilise a section of the seven per cent Dalit community, support from 10% Muslims and a slice of the 13-15% upper caste votes could really brighten Congress’ prospects.
Congress has certainly shown an aptitude for taking risks. Some of it may have to do with the fact that it can’t do worse than it did in the last Lok Sabha polls – 0/26. Given the 2017 assembly elections in which for the first time in over two decades the grand old party came with sniffing distance of victory, or its victory in the 2015 Panchayat polls, Congress may have reasons to feel confident of a payoff.