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Gujarat elections: Congress looks to gain on Hardik’s PAAS

The group is highly active in areas dominated by Patidars, who account for 12% of Gujarat’s 60 million population and can influence results of over 60 of the182 seats.

assembly elections Updated: Dec 03, 2017 07:59 IST
Hiral Dave
Hiral Dave
Hindustan Times, Ahmedabad
Gujarat elections,Gujarat polls,Patidars
PAAS convener Hardik Patel during a road show in Bhavnagar.(PTI File Photo)

*On Sunday, Hardik Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) will take out a 34-km long yatra covering four assembly seats in Surat city. Except for a rally by Rahul Gandhi on November 3, Congress has held no show of strength in politically significant Diamond City.

*On Friday, PAAS opened its central office in Ahmedabad east to manage its anti-BJP campaign.

*On November 29, Hardik held a massive rally in chief minister Vijay Rupani’s constituency Rajkot West. Congress is yet to hold a major rally in this main city of Saurashtra that elects 48 legislators.

*In the rest of Saurashtra that votes on December 9, Hardik holds rallies almost daily. Congress is banking solely on Gandhi’s visits.

The above campaign roadmap of PAAS, which enjoys the support of lakhs of young Patidars and financial backing from the community’s businessmen, reflects how the outfit is emerging as the BJP’s main opposition instead of the Congress.

The 132-year-old Congress, which has been out of power for more than two decades, is relying heavily on the two-year-old PAAS, which came into existence, primarily to demand reservation benefits for Patidars in education and government jobs.

Unfortunately, the Congress, which ruled Gujarat for nearly 30 years before the BJP came to power in 1995, does not have cadre, observes political analyst Shirish Kashikar.

“On the other hand, lakhs of Patidar youth who relate to the quota issue have become foot soldiers for PAAS,” he says.

High on aggression and enthusiasm, the PAAS workers often do the ground work and then Congress leaders take over.

This working model was seen on November 24, when PAAS members interrupted the opening of BJP election offices in Surat and police detained 30 PAAS workers and three Congress candidates. It is highly active in areas dominated by Patidars, who account for 12% of Gujarat’s 60 million population and can influence results of over 60 of the182 seats.

“We are opposing the BJP. So Congress clearly stands to gain from the hard work of our workers,” said PAAS co-convener Dinesh Bambhania.

PAAS has opened offices in Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Surat, Dhrangdhra and Morbi. “All these are small spaces allotted by community members to extend their support to our mission,” said Bambhania.

“From these offices, we plan our rallies, manage door-to-door campaigns and distribute election material,” said Himanshu Hirpara, in-charge of the Ahmedabad office.

Vandana Patel, a former PAAS member who joined Congress last month, continues to work with her old colleagues. The immediate task on hand is distribution of leaflets appealing Patidars not to vote for the BJP.

Like any political party, PAAS has its own flag which has a picture of a farmer with Gujarat’s map in a blue and red background.

Songs and videos are also part of their campaigning which they do sporting the ‘Nehru cap’ with ‘Jai Sardar, Jai Patidar’ slogans on it. These flags and caps can easily be spotted in Gandhi’s rallies in Patidar pockets.

Hardik’s speeches, after he declared support to Congress on November 22 by accepting its quota formula, are no longer about reservation. He now asserts on defeating the BJP for “unleashing atrocity” on the community and “failing to do any vikas (development)”.

“It is PAAS volunteers who are trying to mobilise voters while their immensely popular 24-year-old leader Hardik is driving the opposition’s message home,” said Kashikar.

The popular social media campaign ‘vikas gando thayo che’ (development has gone crazy) was the brainchild of a PAAS supporter, which went on to become one of the themes of Gandhi’s statewide campaign.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Gandhi have dedicated teams for live webcast of their rallies, Hardik’s public meetings are streamed live on Facebook by several youths voluntarily.

Even authorities are now seeing PAAS as a major player in this election, although the outfit is not registered as a political party. Earlier this week, state election officer B B Swain had said that Hardik’s rallies too are being monitored for various aspects, including campaign content and financing.

First Published: Dec 03, 2017 07:04 IST