Former Gujarat Congress working president and leader of the Patidar reservation agitation, Hardik Patel, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party on Thursday, 2 June.
A few hours before formally joining the party, Patel tweeted, "With national interest, state interest, public interest, and community interest in mind, I am going to start a new chapter from today. I will work as a small soldier in the service of the nation under the leadership of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Bhai Modi."
So will Patel's joining BJP change political equations in Gujarat, where elections are due in December this year?
There are three aspects to this.
1. What This Means for BJP
For the BJP, it is a huge symbolic win. Hardik Patel was one of the more vocal critics of the party in Gujarat in recent times.
Even before joining the Congress, he ran a sharp campaign, targetting not just the BJP but also Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then-BJP president Amit Shah.
He went to the extent of saying that Patidars were fooled to vote for the BJP in the name of "Hindu-Muslim polarisation" and is known to have called PM Modi "feku" and Shah a "goon".
With such a strong erstwhile critic now in its ranks, the BJP has proven that its hegemony in Gujarat is intact. It sends the signal that anyone who wants to have a future in politics in the state, would need to work with the BJP.
The fact that Modi and Shah can change chief ministers at will, appoint a first-time MLA like Bhupendra Patel as CM without any pushback within or outside the party, reflects their dominance.
However, one needs to be realistic about Hardik Patel's influence on the ground.
His influence had already reduced significantly over the past 3 to 4 years. He joined the Congress on the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and despite his entry, the party secured only 25 percent votes among Patidars, according to the Lokniti-CSDS post poll survey. The BJP retained over 60 percent Patidar votes in both the 2017 Assembly polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
However, sources in the BJP say that Patel's entry isn't significant in what he brings to the table presently but for the threat he could have posed in future.
During the Patidar agitation and in the run-up to the Assembly polls, Patel's rallies used to attract massive crowds at the venue, besides a large audience online. At that time, he had grown extremely popular among the Patidar youth.
While his popularity has reduced since then, the issues he had raised – regarding jobs for Patidar youth and agrarian woes – have hardly been addressed and could have again become a rallying point for protests.
The BJP has nipped any such possibility in the bud.
2. What This Means for Congress, AAP, and the Opposition As a Whole
Hardik Patel was born in 1993. Most people his age wouldn't remember any party other than the BJP being in power in the state. The BJP has been in power since 1998 without any interruption.
Therefore, it was significant that a young politician like him was initially looking at a future outside the BJP. This despite the fact that unlike Jignesh Mevani, whose community largely remains anti-BJP, Patel came from a pro-BJP community.
Clearly, Patel's sentiments have changed whether it is due to the cases against him or for the sake of better political prospects.
Having said that, Gujarat always has had a sizeable anti-BJP vote, especially in rural areas and among communities like Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis, and OBCs.
The crisis within the Opposition is that Congress appears in disarray and the Aam Aadmi Party may not have the ground strength to capture anti-BJP vote.
Patel's exit is a blow to both these parties in varying degrees.
For the Congress, Patel provided a means to reach out to younger Patidars – a votebank that otherwise may not have considered the grand old party as an option.
However, in the Surat Municipal Corporation elections, Patel is said to have tactically backed AAP, helping it make its presence felt in the city.
A sizeable part of AAP's support was from Patidars and the party was hoping to expand among them further. Patel joining the BJP may constrain that as well.
The Congress would now hope to launch a campaign that taps into rural unrest against the BJP and consolidate its traditional 'KHAM' (Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim) base. In particular, it may try desperately to woo the Koli community and also its Adivasi base that is being targetted both by the BJP and the Bharatiya Tribal Party.
For AAP, the vacuum it is trying to capture is essentially in urban Gujarat where the Congress has consistently failed to become an effective opposition to the BJP.
3. What This Means for Patidar Politics
Hardik Patel is said to have met several Patidar leaders from both Leuva and Kadwa Patel organisations before taking his final decision on joining the BJP. One such closed door meeting included Leuva Patel leader and philanthropist Naresh Patel, who has been negotiating with the Congress for several months now.
It would be crucial if the Congress is now able to bring Naresh Patel into its fold or if the leader decides to stay away.
Though Naresh Patel and Hardik Patel have their differences and the narrative among Leuva and Kadwa Patels isn't always the same, there is one common ground – that they want to get the best possible deal for their community.
There is a sense among Patidar leaders that in the end, they have no choice but to deal with the BJP. The BJP also has many leaders who actively patronise Patidar organisations.
So while they don't want to antagonise the BJP, they are also open to negotiating with other parties even if it is just to put pressure on the BJP.
For many Patidars leaders, the tactical support to Congress in some areas wasn't to defeat the BJP or make the Congress win, but to send a message not to take them for granted. This wasn't the case for Hardik Patel, who was far more invested in defeating the BJP and making the Congress win.
To its credit, the BJP did get the message and took a number of steps to address the differences with the Patidar leadership. Appointing Bhupendra Patel as CM in September 2021 was one part of this exercise, though it was also to contain political anti-incumbency due to COVID-19 and other factors.
More recently, on 28 May, PM Modi went to Atkot village near Rajkot to inaugurate the KD Parvadiya Multi-Speciality Hospital set up by the Shree Patel Seva Samaj trust.
This was a clear attempt to woo the Patidar community as well as consolidate BJP's position in rural Saurashtra where it suffered a drubbing in 2017. Incidentally, Home Minister Amit Shah was also in Saurashtra at the same time – Dwarka to be precise.
It now remains to be seen how the Patidar organisations, specifically Naresh Patel, play their cards.