One is a fiery and outspoken leader. The other is soft-spoken and weighs his every word. But despite their contrasting styles, both have emerged as big headaches for the BJP in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat ahead of state elections next year.
Hardik Patel, 22, the leader of the Patidars, wants quotas for Patels. Alpesh Thakor, 39, on the contrary heads a conglomerate of OBC organisations that are opposing reservations for Patels.
Patels account for about 12-14 percent and OBCs some 24 percent of Gujarat’s 6 crore population. Their demands are exactly the opposite of the other but given that they resonate among many, chief minister Anandiben Patel has a difficult balancing act to do.
Both Patels and the OBCs form the core of the BJP support base in the state. It is the hold over these communities that gives the BJP an edge over the Congress in northern Gujarat belt, including Mehsana, Banaskantha and Patan districts, and the Saurashtra peninsula.
Maintaining the ruling party’s hold over both the communities without displeasing the other is proving to be a challenge. Stung by reverses in the rural belt in last year’s local body elections, the chief minister has sought to extend an olive branch to Hardik. She sent Porbandar MP Vithal Radadiya as an envoy to meet Hardik in a bid to “resolve most of the issues and differences”. Earlier in September, the government announced a first-of-its-kind scholarship package for upper-caste students.
But placating Hardik and the agitated Patel community is proving to be tricky. Alpesh has threatened to “uproot the BJP” if the government succumbs to the Patidars’ demand. His OSS (OB, SC, ST) Ekta Manch is unwilling to share the 27% OBC quota with influential castes like the Patidars, prompting political observers to say that the Gujarat government is under “siege” by two rising young leaders.
“The BJP government is caught between these two leaders. What is the cause of worry for the BJP is that Alpesh’s stir, which gathered momentum post the Patidar stir, threatens to unite the OBC, SC and ST,’’ says political analyst Achyut Yagnik
Their rise to political prominence has been phenomenal. Hardid supplied mineral water to business houses in Ahmedabad before he took over the reins of the Patel agitation. Alpesh was a small-time Congress leader who contested and lost a panchayat election in 2009. He left the Congress in 2011 and soon metamorphosed into a leader of the OBCs, heading the OSS Ekta Manch – an outfit of all the 146 communities listed as OBC, SC and ST in Gujarat.
At the height of the Patel stir, Hardid addressed rallies attended by no less than 5 lakh people. Alpesh’s rallies at some places drew close to 2 lakh people. Their mass appeals have pitted two key vote banks of the ruling BJJP against each other.
“For the first time in 30 years, the BJP has found itself in a fix. If it tries to keep the Patidars happy, the OBC vote will drift away and vice versa. The challenge before it is to find a mid way before the assembly elections in December 2017,” says political analyst and journalist Jwalant Chhaya.