Hardik Patel is in a tearing hurry. He might be too young to contest elections but the 23-year-old is fast adapting to a politician’s life –starched white shirts have replaced the trademark yellow and orange T-shirts, selfie and camera poses are struck in a jiffy and quotes from leaders such as Jyotiba Phule and Bal Thackeray pepper his speeches.
Only two things of the fast-maturing leader is reminiscent of his fiery past as the leader of raucous Patidar quota protests two years ago: A revolver dangling from his waist and a sword under his seat when he travels.
“In the last two years I have learnt not to trust anyone,” says Hardik, sitting in the front passenger seat white Toyota Fortuner, a sober Titan watch on his left arm.
He is on a breakneck tour of Gujarat since he was allowed into the state in January after a six-month exile following sedition charges. He has travelled some 20,000 kilometres and wants to cover all 18,000 villages in Gujarat before polls by year-end.
His mission is to secure OBC quota for Patidars and dislodge the BJP after over two decades in the prime minister’s home state. He is a one-man army – fixing his own appointments, making travel plans, arranging logistics, writing speeches and managing social media.
His only permanent companion is aide Ravi Patel. Everyone else from the initial team has split. “I no more make any permanent team,” Hardik adds.
He has started to only use WhatsApp. “I have learnt to play safe,” he says, recalling the two sedition cases slapped on him based on call recordings with members of his outfit Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS).
The first stop of the day is his home is around 11 am at Zalawadi Patidar Samaj Society in Viramgam town, 50km from Ahmedabad. Hardik is visibly happy at coming home only for the third time since January 17.
“Bhakri (a Gujarat bread) is the best breakfast. It keeps you going the whole day.” In a huge frame hanging in the hall, a morphed image portrays Hardik alongside a lion, the image he projects at rallies now.
“This is my father Bhartbhai and mother,” he settles on the floor for breakfast after a short introduction of parents. “My grandfather wears dhoti, my father likes trousers and I prefer jeans. This development is not because of (Narendra) Modi.”
What about the luxury cars that dot his cross-Gujarat cavalcade? Just a “help” from a “well-wisher”, he says.
As he starts again for Dhrangadhra half an hour later, a black Tata Safari carrying his core team joins him. “I would not like to name them to protect their identity,” he quips as the two cars communicate the route through walkie-talkie. “We take interior roads so that no one comes to know about our plan,” says Hardik.
On the way, Hardik quotes Jyotiba Phule, Bhagat Singh and Bal Thackarey, founder of the Shiv Sena that has pledged support to him. “I read them during nine months in Surat jail,” he says, comfortably positioning himself for cameras while managing two iPhones.
At Vasavada village, some 15 km from the destination, a group of bikers welcome him with flowers. The cavalcade swells as bikers, an Audi, a Honda City and a mini truck carrying a sound system join in playing a Gujarati song on Bollywood beats – Patel maare entry to dole aakhi country (Patel rocks the whole country with his entry). Jitu Patel, a young biker, starts filming Hardik on his mobile phone from his moving bike with one hand on the handle.
Soon, men, women and children come forward for selfies and handshake as Hardik balances himself on the SUV’s sidestep. Four men travelling in Safari now play guards standing two each on both sidesteps as the contingent starts taking more breaks to oblige villagers alongside the highway showering flowers on his moving vehicle. Around 1pm, Hardik enters Dhangadhra with more than 1,000 two-wheelers and cars in tow. As locals throng the two-lane roads to catch a glimpse, he asks his friend-cum-driver Akshay to slow down where women or elders wanted to welcome him.
But he is annoyed. “Why has the DJ stopped playing music?” he asks. When told it was on instructions of a police team that joined him at Dhangadhra, he reacts, “Permission or no permission, when I am around, don’t worry.”
But suddenly, the revelry is disturbed as someone from the crowd pushes towards the car and tries to hit him. He escapes an injury by a whisker.
His supporters in other cars are out with batons in no time. Ravi, inside his SUV, checks the revolver and gets ready. While his SUV moves on, his supporters reportedly thrash the “attacker”, said to be a BJP worker.
The scuffle, however, has no impact on Hardik. He asks Ravi to bring the camera storage card from a young man clicking his photographs sitting atop another SUV. Ravi downloads the Dhrangadhra rally pictures and sends them to Hardik, who then uploads them on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, without any mention of the incident.
The cavalcade, now almost 2-km-long, reaches Naarichaani village around 5pm where Hardik addresses a public meeting.
“Is anyone among you a PSI (police sub-inspector), talati or mamlatdar (district administrative posts)? No? This is why we need reservation,” he tells a 2,000-strong crowd.
“Narendra Modi credits himself for Gujarat’s development. But it is we who have elected them and developed Gujarat.” He adds, “I’m not afraid of General Dyer (as he refers to BJP chief Amit Shah). I’m ready to go to jail again if you all join hands to defeat those who have failed us.”
After his 30-minute speech, Hardik visits a local temple before winding up his tour. “A month later, I will take you to another public meeting. It will have banners, sound system and all other arrangements that you see at Modi’s rallies. I am doing a ‘research’ on that,” Hardik tells HT on his way back to Ahmedabad.