In less than a week, the 22-year-old Hardik Patel has emerged as a mass leader, displayed his ability to mobilise half a million people for a rally and bring the state to a halt. He has challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his stronghold, revealed his political ambitions and has left people guessing about who – if anyone at all – is backing him.
But the big question now is what lies ahead for Hardik. Will he be a flashy but rash opening batsman who loses his wicket trying to hit yet another six, or will he settle down and give stability to the innings?
When HT met him on Thursday, in a parking lot of a residential block in Ahmedabad, Hardik came across as confident but brash. His replies were initially monosyllabic, but he opened up subsequently. Hardik had little time for niceties and political correctness. He advocated aggression (he has said, separately, that everyone should keep a gun); his language was littered with abuses for political opponents, including the PM; he placed a premium on people fearing a leader; his political rhetoric was simplistic; and the power rush had clearly got to him as he declared his ambition to hold the ‘remote control’ of politics.
Dangerous and immature as these personality features are, they appear to have helped him project the image of a ‘firebrand’ leader. But will the politics of demagoguery be enough?
Patel’s future depends on a set of variables.
The first is whether the Patels of the state will continue to invest in him as their leader. His case has been immeasurably helped by the government’s ineptness. Patels are very angry with the police brutality – and Sunday’s planned funeral procession of a police victim will be a reflection of this anger. The agitation has also struck a chord with younger Patels, who are restless for a wide set of reasons but are palming off all of life’s setbacks on the reservations regime. This gives Hardik ammunition.
At the same time, the community leadership is getting divided, and there are some influential figures who do not want to turn anti-BJP. The ruling party has now woken to the threat and will deploy tools to ‘isolate and expose’ Hardik. Many Patels also believe they have made their point and prolonged struggle, at economic costs, is not an attractive alternative. The yearning for order over disruption is high in the community.
The second variable is how Hardik navigates the national stage. He has expressed solidarity with other groups demanding reservations, and spoken of a wider Patel umbrella which includes groups like Bihar’s Kurmis.
But his politics is very different from that of these other castes. The Patel movement carries a strong anti-reservation strain; Hardik has openly called for an abolition of the system. This will impose severe limits on his appeal. OBC leaders of north India will have to think hard before associating with him. Some like Nitish Kumar seem to have seen in him a possible challenge to Modi and BJP - but as it becomes clear that the challenge is from the more conservative end of the spectrum, there will be an inevitable distancing.
And the third variable is how he translates the current strength into negotiations and future political muscle.
Patel is at crossroads. He can draw out a thoughtful political programme, get on to the table with the government, negotiate a package which can be sold as a win for Patels, take credit for it and gradually build his organisational muscle on the ground. Or he can decide that the unglamorous tasks of negotiation and party building are not for him. He can then continue to stoke passions, capitalise on anger, sharpen the polarisation with the government and other communities in Gujarat, relish the temporary satisfaction he may draw from a BJP setback in upcoming civic polls, and practice the politics of disruption. The latter route may give him temporary stardom, but the former will give him long-term political strength.
Hardik Patel has got a great opening, but whether he remains in the race for long depends on his actions now.