NEW DELHI: Twenty two years old, and he has usurped all the images---of nationalism, Sardar Patel, Ram, Guns and Fire---from the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates in Gujarat. But smashed the deliberated created image of growth and development with the story of poverty, acute discrimination and corruption.
Hardik Patel has emerged almost overnight as a community leader, attracting lakhs with just one call for “reservations”. He seems to be a simple lad from the village, but clearly has a political acumen that has placed him at the end of a major movement in Gujarat defying its former Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s claims of development and progress.
Hardik Patel who proved his strength with a five lakh plus crowd in the streets of Surat, has now threatened to bring over 25 lakh Patels to Ahmedabad if the government fails to concede his demand for ‘reservation.’ Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, a Patel herself as the name clearly implies, has no idea of how to deal with the young man and has appointed a committee of Ministers to negotiate with him. Hardik Patel is dismissive, and does not think much of a committee that in his own words, does not include the Law Minister, the Labour Minister or the Home Minister. “How then can they look into the issue of reservation?” he asks.
Patel is clearly a phenomenon, added to by videos that project him larger than life. ‘Nationalist” songs interspersed with slogans of “har har mahadev” and “jago patidar, jai sardar’ have him carrying a gun, walking down a red carpet with adulatory crowds looking at him, sitting on top of a “SPG” vehicle with a revolver in his hand, with the symbols religious and nationalist now clearly in the process of being taken away from the BJP.
Who is behind him? The question confounds the political parties and as Hardik Patel himself says, “the Congress says I am with Amit Shah”, the BJP says I am with the Congress” adding that he is only for reservation for the Patel sub castes who have been for long neglected. It is true that the politicians are not certain who is behind him, or if indeed anyone is, with a section of the BJP even accusing its own dissenters of propping him up.
This has not deterred the Patels from following their ‘new leader’ whose strength clearly lies in his ability to articulate the woes of the poor farmers and rural folk. Interestingly in doing so Hardik Patel is clearly exposing the claims by the state as being the most developed. Prime Minister Modi himself had cast Gujarat as a model of growth. But now Patel says that it is barely that, and the poverty is immense. Asked about this by the media he said, “look at the villages, these tell a different story.” In a very interesting panel discussion with a Hindi news channel Hardik Patel says that the majority of farmers committing suicide are Patels. He says that the farmers children are denied jobs despite securing excellent marks; and have to pay Rs 25 lakhs for a government job. To a follow up question by the interviewer who asked how come there was corruption in Gujarat when the world had been told that it was corruption-free, Hardik Patel said, “there is silent corruption”.
Hardik Patel has clearly touched on an emotional chord, tying up poverty and aspirations with reservations. From development the image of Gujarat has moved into protest, as the very community that was made synonymous by the BJP leadership with the economic growth of the state is now on the streets claiming the opposite.
Significantly, Patel has been covered largely by the regional media with the English newspapers and television channels still a little wary of contradicting the role model status of Gujarat openly. So the Hindi and language channels of the multi-media houses report with voiced surprise the Hardik Patel phenomenon to some extent, but the English language channels and newspapers of the same media houses are reluctant to analyse the amazing prowess of this 22 year old who has taken Gujarat by storm. And from within, and not outside the Patel community that PM Modi and CM Patel claim to be the face of development.
Hardik Patel counters this with, “if five or six per cent of a community become rich it does not mean that the community is rich.” He says that he has support of the Patels abroad as well. He said that these people had left Gujarat because they could not make a livelihood there. “And now they are all supporting reservation” he claims. When an interviewer confronted him with the state government’s claims of the economic progress of farmers in Gujarat and the fact that they had all built big houses Hardik Patel said, “their land has been acquired, so maybe a few built houses, but they have been left without land.” He takes care to repeat that his movement is not against any community, only for getting reservation rights for the Patels of which at least two sub castes he says have been more discriminated against than others.
Patel whose demand for reservations for his community is gathering ground by the day, paints a dismal picture of Gujarat in every interview he has given, or meeting he has addressed. Farmers suicides, deprivation, poverty, corruption are all integral parts of the story of a state that had been projected for over a decade as a model of growth for India.
Hardik Patel’s story has just begun. But he is a fearless, quiet mannered, determined young man. The devil, in this case too, however, might be in the details as these emerge, and in the future of the protest as it cascades into a movement.