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Gujarat elections: Divided discourse in BJP’s Patidar fortress of Mehsana

Two years before the Gujarat elections, youth of the restive Patidar community were at the receiving end of police excesses in Mehsana and elsewhere in Gujarat that left 14 of them dead.

assembly elections Updated: Nov 16, 2017 08:11 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Mehsana/Ahmedabad, Hindustan Times
Gujarat elections,Gujarat elections 2017,Hardik Patel
Members of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti protest against the BJP during an election campaign in Surat.(PTI FILE)

Gujarat’s Mehsana is the Mecca of Patidars, especially the Kadva sub-group of the elite caste that has gravitated politics in Gujarat since the 1990s. Its primacy can be measured from the fact that Sardar Patel was a Kadva. So is Hardik Patel.

To some the Mecca metaphor might seem inappropriate. Let’s compare it then with what Bihar’s Madhepura is to the Yadav community: Rome Pope Ka, Madhepura Gope Ka.

The defining distinction is that the Yadavs aka Gopes are counted among OBCs and have quotas in jobs and education. The Patidars, or Patels, are out of the affirmative action ambit. They’re fighting for equity in it.

In 2015, youth of the restive community were at the receiving end of police excesses in Mehsana and elsewhere in Gujarat that left 14 of them dead. Those who escaped the denouement felt betrayed — and humiliated.

Betrayed because Anandiben, a fellow Patel, albeit from the Leuva sub-group, was then the chief minister. Humiliated because most of the five BJP legislators from Mehsana left the agitators to fend for themselves.

I visited the town a day after Rahul did earlier this week. It’s a veritable satellite of Ahmedabad, separated by a 75km stretch of a well-tarred state highway. The district is home to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is from its Vadnagar taluka. Gujarat’s deputy chief minister Nitin Patel is the sitting MLA from Mehsana proper.

Prosperity is poverty’s twin in the agriculturally rich area. Hardik’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) has traction among jobless youth from families with smaller landholdings. Their sense of deprivation is relative, what with Mehsana being the umbilical root of top notch Gujarati entrepreneurs: Karsanbhai of the ~2500 crore Nirma group, Gujarat Apollo’s Anilbhai and Vimal Industries Chandubhai.

They’re Patidars who made it big. The sheen of affluence they bequeathed their clansmen is but a half story. The flip part of it is the quota stir led by Hardik in which the Congress sees an opening in the constituency that has been the BJP’s citadel for decades. In the 1984 sympathy wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Mehsana was one of the only two Lok Sabha seats the BJP could win across India.

At the local Agriculture Produce Market Community, with an annual ~351 crore turnover, one heard voices that recognised the gravity of the quota agitation. In the same breath its functionaries did not put it beyond Modi’s personal appeal to set things right for the BJP. But they agreed as much with Rahul’s focus on unemployment and job losses after demonetisation.

“Unemployment is rampant among educated Patel youth. The quota lure could influence 30-40% youth in the rural areas,” said APMC director Bhailal Bhai. “But who knows which side the tide will turn once Modi is out campaigning... we’ve doubts about the Congress’s ability to stay the course with equal vigour.”

Be that as it may, Rahul’s November 13 tour of the district was the first in many years by a Gandhi family member. The previous visit the inhabitants recall was by Indira, his grandmother. “It shows some infusion of life in the Congress,” admitted another APMC office holder unwilling to be quoted.

But the point is whether the Congress has the energy, resources and the organisation to sustain and build on the emerging political space? It will need considerable ingenuity to make new converts among the Patidars coexist with other social formations it’s eyeing, especially OBC Thakors and the Muslims.

The Patels who deeply distrust Muslims are in conflict as much with the OBCs over their quota demand. The fence-sitters among them need to be persuaded to start viewing the Congress as a reliable option to Modi who’s another name for the ruling BJP. The anti-incumbency is against chief minister Vijay Rupani, a Jain who replaced a Patel, not the PM.

A chat with a set of Patidar youth at a local eatery was a tutorial of sorts in getting to know their mind. Half of them thought that as PM, Modi was better placed to work the Gujarati pride theme he so successfully invoked as CM. For the naysayers, however, the impending polls were more about the Patidar pride — and their potency in Gujarat’s power game!

Wagering on either proposition is hazardous at the moment. For the battle’s slowly shaping up in Mehsana. Closer to the poll date of December 14, the lines now drawn could radically alter.

First Published: Nov 16, 2017 07:56 IST