Tens of thousands have turned out to listen to the 22-year-old Hardik Patel in over 100 rallies and meetings he has organised across Gujarat, expressing solidarity with his campaign for caste reservations for the Patidar community.
In almost two months, he has become a force to reckon with and has been galvanising the community in its demand for reservation in government jobs and colleges under Other Backward Classes (OBC) category.
On Tuesday, he warned the BJP government the state of consequences in the assembly elections of 2017 if the demand of his community, which is seen as a crucial BJP votebank in Gujarat, are not met.
"If this government does not heed our demands, the lotus will not bloom in 2017," said Patel, addressing a nearly three lakh-strong crowd of the influential community. He also threatened to go on a hunger strike if chief minister Anandiben Patel does not consider their demands.
Hardik, who claims that he is neither affiliated to nor supported by any political party, belongs to a middle-class family of Chandrapur village near Viramgam in central Gujarat. After completing his B.Com with less than 50% marks from Ahmedabad's Sahajanand College, he helped his father in the family's small submersible pumps business for a while. He father, Bharatbhai Patel, is said to be a BJP worker.
In 2011, he set up the Sardar Patel Group to "protect the interests" of the Patidar community. He was the president of its Viramgam unit and according to his Facebook profile, 30,000 people became members of the group in two years.
He took on the leadership of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, an offshoot of the Sardar Patel Sevadal, in July and launched the agitation from the politically important Mehsana, which is the home district of not just Anandiben but also Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. As a convenor of the umbrella organisation of Patel groups, Hardik has so far organised close to a 100 rallies attracting crowds both in urban as well as rural areas across Gujarat.
With close to 5,000 friends on Facebook, he has requested those who want to befriend him on the social networking site to follow him on his community page, which has 35,373 likes till now. His profile mostly has photos of his rallies and media reports with his followers commenting on the great job he has done. His organisation uses Facebook and WhatsApp to relay information about his rallies and tap the youth in the state.
Hardik, who frequently invokes the legacy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, is compared to the Iron Man of India by his supporters. They also call him the 'New Modi' and the Patidar Hriday Samrat. In a recently released video on the website of his Sardar Patel Sevadal, Hardik has been shown emerging from raging flames and shattering glass amid firecrackers, while being showered with rose petals. He is also seen spotting a gun in the video.
The Patidars have fully rallied behind him and his demand that the community, which has for years wielded immense political and financial clout in the state, needs reservations in government jobs and colleges. The PAAS has cited suicides by Patels, who are are involved in agriculture in significant numbers in the state, to contest their image as influential and prosperous.
Even though Hardik claims he is apolitical, the ruling-BJP government in Gujarat has accused Congress of trying to disrupt peace in the state and misguide the Patel community.
Hardik released his photographs with BJP vice-president Purshottam Rupala and minister of state for home Rajnikant Patel when anonymous messages claiming his proximity to Congress MLA Tejshree Patel surfaced. He has also been seen with VHP leader Pravin Togadia in photographs. During 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Hardik had openly supported the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
CM Anandiben Patel, who belongs to the same community and has six Patel ministers in her cabinet, rejected their demands but has invited community leaders to hold talks with the state government. She has also formed a seven-member committee, headed by state health minister Nitin Patel, to look into the community's demands.
Making his intentions clear, Hardik said on Tuesday: "Our agitation will end the day the government will indicate that it is willing to give us reservation."
"If you do not give our right, we will snatch it. Whoever will talk of the interest of Patels will rule over Patels," Hardik told a gathering in Ahmedabad.