A Day in the Life of Hardik Patel, the Angry Millennial Politician
(Despite the BJP's overall performance in Gujarat, the Congress seems to have registered an increase in its seat count in the Saurashtra Kutch region, where Patidar agitation leader Hardik Patel was responsible for mobilising crowds against the BJP. This article is being republished from The Quint’s archives to note Patel’s influence in the Congress’ performance)
Hardik Patel is seated next to the driver. His SUV is racing along from the village of Atkot in Rajkot to the site of a massive roadshow and sabha in the neighbouring Botad district. Patel is a busy 24-year-old. Through a ten-day journey across Gujarat, he is out to exhort his community to vote against the BJP this election, come what may. This, even as the Congress continues to court, woo, and plead him to join their fold.
But at the end of the day, Patel is still a 24-year-old, too young to even contest elections.
As he moves from one pitstop to the next, Hardik Patel takes 140 characters to wish luck to both the BJP and the Congress this election, but reminds them that for the next two months, it is the people who will rule. “Ab se do mahine tak janta raj.”
He then turns towards me and boasts, “I have a following of 120,000 on Twitter. And 720,000 on Facebook.” And a verified Instagram page too!
Patel has a following, no doubt. It is his electoral strength that has not been tested so far. The litmus is ready this election. Can the firebrand agitator turn electoral gamechanger, especially for a community that has consistently backed the BJP over the past two decades?
Acting His Age, and Acting Older
At a rally in Mandavdhar village in Gujarat’s Botad district, Patel employs crowd engagement tactics used by young emcees at college fests. It is a telling reminder of his age.
Speaking in Gujarati, he exhorts his audience of several thousand Patidars, “Only the women, give me a cheer! Jai Sardar!” He turns to the men next. “And now only the men — Jai Sardar!”
He jokes, “Forgive me, but the men are louder.” The crowd laughs.
He tells the villagers assembled, “In the future, after we win the fight for reservation, if a young girl from this village becomes an IAS or an IPS officer and I am called to felicitate her, nothing will make me prouder.”
But Patel does not want age to restrict the authority he wishes to wield. Once he arrives at the sabha in Mandavdhar village, the first twenty minutes or so are spent just on him being felicitated, by the young and more importantly, by the old. All the while, his anthem roars from the loudspeakers — “Aa Patidar che” (“He is a Patidar”).
Over the last couple of years, Patel and his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) have attempted to establish themselves as the sole custodians of the community’s interests. But in poll season, will Patidars pay any heed to the political preferences of a 24-year-old while deciding their vote?
And at a time when two of his former aides, Reshma Patel and Varun Patel, have jumped ship to the BJP, which way do Hardik Patel’s political allegiances lie anyway?
‘Campaigning Against BJP, but Won't Join Congress’
In his ten-day tour of the state, Patel is leaving no stone unturned to campaign against the BJP. But so far, he has turned down the overtures from the Congress to join their fold. It begs the question – why? Is he, like the BJP alleges, the B-Team of the Congress?
Speaking exclusively to The Quint during his roadshow, Patel answers the question.
But why then has he been non-committal to the Congress so far?
The OBC-Patel Dilemma
Patel’s key demand is reservation for his community. This can be actualised in two ways — either by increasing the overall percentage of reservation, or by adding Patidars to the list of OBCs. But the former option is untenable due to the Supreme Court’s cap that reservations cannot exceed 50% of the total seats on offer.
So, is that why Hardik Patel has kept his distance from openly endorsing the Congress party, even as he campaigns fervently against the BJP?
Patel responds, “If a solution is sought sincerely, the communities will find a way to work together on this.”
Between the lines, the writing is right there on the wall. Hardik Patel is yet to announce support to the Congress as he is still bargaining for what he, and the Patidars, will get in return.
Between Selfies, Temple Visits, and Arrest Warrants
At his stop in the village of Atkot, Patel obliges the thronging Patidar crowd with selfies galore. He even clicks some himself. There is hardly much talking. Cries of “Jai Sardar” rent the air, the phones keep clicking, greetings are exchanged, more photos are clicked.
Later, during my Facebook live interview with him, he suddenly takes my selfie stick and climbs atop the sunroof of his SUV, going on to show visuals of the hundreds of supporters following him.
A while after that, he switches the camera back to selfie mode himself, even as he fields further questions.
More importantly though, Patel understands the optics of politics. In a space of a couple of hours, he makes two visits to village temples. The Patidars are considered a religious lot, and Patel wants to be seen chanting his prayers.
While travelling from one district to another, he receives news that an arrest warrant has been issued against him. He brushes it off, saying there is no need to worry, “It’s a bailable warrant.”
I inform him that news channels are flashing that the warrant is a non-bailable one. It prompts him to check again with his lawyer. He is told it is indeed an NBW.
I ask, “Are you worried now?”
The following day though, he surprises quite a few by turning up in court. The arrest warrant against him is quashed.
The youngest factor in this Gujarat election is a shrewd politician, even though he doesn’t like being called one. The cards he has up his sleeve may possibly alter the Congress’ prospects in these polls. Or maybe the sayings and doings of the millennial agitator won’t amount to much.
After all, the Patidars have remained loyal to the BJP for as long a period as Hardik Patel has spent on this planet.