Rise of Hardik Patel as a cult figure outside of Gujarat
Patidar leader claims his movement’s strength has doubled as Dalits too have joined the Patels against BJP’s high-handedness.
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Looking for Hardik Patel in Udaipur but don’t have his address? Don't worry because every other person in the city — from the ubiquitous autowallah to the Marwari shopkeeper — knows the place that has been home to the Patel reservation poster boy for the past six months.
On the outskirts of this hustling city, it takes about 40 minutes from Surajpole Bus station to Pushkar Lal Dangi's house, where the 22-year-old exiled leader, along with his close aides, has been staying put. The fact that Dangi happens to be a former MLA and an active Congress leader is not a coincidence. Congress leaders in Gujarat, sources claim, have extended tacit support to Hardik. Dangi is also a part of the wider Patel community, outside Gujarat.
There is hectic activity outside House Number 190, Dauji ki Bawdi in Shri Nath Colony in Pratap Nagar. A white SUV with a Gujarat registration plate and a Patel Navnirman Sena flag stands outside the three-storey bungalow. Six to seven security personnel from Rajasthan Police and the CID could be seen hunched in one corner, keeping an eye on who goes in and for how long.
While CCTV cameras have been installed on electric poles, all such visits are being video recorded and personal details — name, address and vehicle number — neatly jotted down in a register. The video footage is monitored from a makeshift camp, which also has cots laid down for the cops for their night stay.
What's more, even Dangi gets down from his car several metres before the entrance gate. As he walks by, waving his hand at the security personnel, he checks with them whether everything is fine.
It's almost 30 minutes past ten on a Sunday morning. The number of shoes scattered outside the main entrance door gives a fair idea of the rush of visitors inside. Once again, quick checks are being made, information jotted down, but this time by Hardik’s own men.
Except mediapersons, no one else is allowed to carry their phones or cameras inside. Hardik's supporters, who have come all the way from Gujarat, are being told that there will be a separate photo opportunity with their leader at the end and pictures will be provided to everyone.The recent Dalit protests after incidents of alleged atrocities seems to have emboldened Hardik's ambitions.
Inside, portraits of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maharana Pratap adorn the walls. 39-year-old Pragnesh Patel, one of Hardik’s close aides, greets everyone warmly. He tells this correspondent that Hardik is exhausted after a series of late night meetings but will be here shortly.
I'm being told that a lot of people are expected today as well. He is soon joined by Nikhil Sawani, another young man from Hardik’s team, and the convenor of Pattidar Anamat Andolan Samiti ( PAAS), Surat district unit. Under PAAS, they claim, they will continue the fight for reservation.
After Hardik was released from Lajpore jail on July 15 with a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Gujarat, his supporters organised his meetings, road trips and processions in Surat, Ahmedabad, Bharuch and Vadodara and finally accompanied him to Udaipur. Several others from the Patel community thronged the highway in Bharuch to meet him as he was running short of time, keen on making a quick exit, fearing that any violation can earn him another reprimand.
In Hardik’s absence, the atmosphere in the room is surcharged. Talks revolve around how the agitation has been shaping up. I also pitch in. Will it carry the same weight after the Gujarat High Court, in its bail order, directed Hardik to leave? Members of his team talk about how they have been getting support from different quarters.
But they also express concern over the need for greater unity among Leva and Kadva Patels, two of the dominant sub-castes within the Patel community.
For Patels outside Gujarat, a separate movement, Patel Navnirman Sena was launched. It, they say, will cater to the "other" Patels, whether it's the Dangi Patels from Rajasthan or the Kurmi Patidars in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or the Khandayats. One of them excitedly tells me that even Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is a Patel.
Soon, there is a flurry of activity in the room. A few young men barge in and out in quick succession. A huge number of visitors is still waiting outside. An increasingly impatient group is being told that they will be given preference. "Soon, Hardik Patel will be in, in a moment’s time," they announce.
A few photos are being clicked and selfies taken. Hardik shakes hands and embraces some warmly. He looks agitated about rumours being spread that he will not be allowed to move around freely even outside Gujarat and will remain confined. "We are not living under British Raj," he tells this correspondent.Hardik Patel looks calm and unruffled, except when he makes the stunning claim that the BJP could have got him killed in an encounter. (File Photo/PTI)
Soon as he settles down, I ask him, why is he pushing for caste-based reservation? Are the Patels in Gujarat not the relatively affluent ones? Do they really need it?
He reticently claims the image is incorrect. Soon, he changes gear and goes on the offensive. He says, Patels, seen with swanky cars, plush bungalows and their children living in the US, is not the real picture. His supporters provide statistics. They claim that only 20 per cent of the of Gujarati Patel population can be termed rich.
The remaining — farmers, daily wage earners, small scale entrepreneurs, educated youths — are not well-off. And with job opportunities not increasing, the community is finding it increasingly difficult to survive, they claim.
What about allegations that his agitation took a violent shape and caused widespread destruction in Gujarat in August last year? He denies playing any role in that, claiming that it were the police that resorted to unprovoked lathicharge on more than half-a-million people at the GMDC ground on the August 25 last year. His refrain is, it was hard for him to control the large-scale arson, deaths and damage to public property that followed.
All through this, I look for signs of nervousness. After all, this 22-year-old has spent nine months in jail, his movement still under restriction and is booked under serious charges of sedition. But he looks calm and unruffled, except when he makes the stunning claim that the BJP could have got him killed in an encounter. He makes some other stinging accusations as well. On sedition charges, he is still nonchalant, saying even if he has to go to jail for 14 years, when he will be out, he will be just 36.
The only time Hardik is sheepish in his replies is, when I ask him, whether he has any political ambitions. Will he have anything to do with Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, who has been eyeing Gujarat, for the Assembly elections in 2017? It's a question he smartly skirts, saying anyone who wants to fight for the rights of Gujaratis, can join him.
The recent Dalit protests after incidents of alleged atrocities seems to have emboldened Hardik's ambitions. He claims the movement’s strength is doubled as Dalits too have joined the Patels against BJP’s "high-handedness".
As the interview comes to an end, a couple of his aides tell me that I have been added to a WhatsApp group and can continuously access information and updates on their movement.
I get on my feet, come outside and look for my shoes from the scores that still lie scattered. Their numbers only seem to have gone up.