After meteoric rise, 28-year-old Patidar leader Hardik Patel deals body blow to Congress

When he had launched the Patidar quota agitation as the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) founder in 2015, Hardik Patel, then aged 22, had not imagined how he would soon fire the imagination of the community’s youth, who were struggling to secure education and jobs after their agrarian assets had shrunk.

Having established himself in Gujarat politics seven years down the line, Hardik resigned from the Congress Wednesday, launching a scathing attack on Rahul Gandhi, who had got him inducted into the party in 2019 and barely one year later appointed him as the working president of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC). He has been the youngest leader to get this GPCC position so far.

When reached for comments on his resignation from the Congress, Hardik told The Indian Express that he was in Himachal Pradesh for “darshan” (worship), refusing to say anything further.

In his resignation letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Hardik has accused the Congress of claiming hating “Gujarat and Gujaratis”, calling it a party that has been more into “virodh” (oppositional politics) than providing a “vikalp” (alternative).

Targeting top Congress leaders, especially Rahul, Hardik charged how when he went to meet senior leaders they would be busy on their “mobiles” and “when the Congress needed leadership, the Congress leaders were enjoying abroad”, and that “big leaders from Gujarat” ” instead of being concerned about state issues were more concerned about delivering “chicken sandwiches on time” to leaders from Delhi.

Hardik Patel is learned to have made several efforts to reach out to Rahul when he was recently abroad, and to All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary Priyanka Gandhi over

his grievances. He later met AICC general secretary KC Venugopal in this regard.

Over the last one year, Hardik has been complaining about the GPCC leaders “ignoring” him and not assigning him tasks or taking him into confidence in the decision-making process. He was also upset with the party not backing him in his fight against the BJP-led government for withdrawal of police cases against him, which stemmed from the 2015 agitation demanding quota for the Patidar community in government jobs and education. Nearly 246 cases were then lodged against the Patidar quota protesters, of which Hardik himself faces 23 cases, including two sedition-related ones.

His discontent against the Congress grew after the party effected a major overhaul of the GPCC in March this year, appointing a jumbo unit of 75 general secretaries and 25 vice-presidents “without taking him into confidence”. He even started praising the BJP and its leadership lately, criticizing the Congress for “delaying” induction of Shree Khodaldham Trust (SKT) chief Naresh Patel into its fold.

Last Sunday, Hardik, along with former PAAS colleagues, met Naresh Patel. Sources say that

his decision to quit the Congress was “firmed up after this meeting”. Naresh, who is based in Rajkot, is said to have helped in mediation with the BJP government for withdrawing cases lodged against the Patidar quota protesters. In March this year, the state government moved applications in the court to withdraw ten of these cases.

Sources close to Hardik say that he has been upset about the “cavalier attitude of the Congress towards its leaders who have been quitting the party”. Early this month, a prominent tribal leader and sitting MLA from Sabarkantha, Ashwin Kotwal, defected from the Congress to the BJP, which brought down the grand old party’s MLAs tally from 65 to 63 (Another Congress MLA Anil Joshiyara had died of Covid-related complications earlier).

On April 28, Hardik commemorated his father’s first death anniversary by organising a Ram Dhun at his native town in Viramgam, where he also invited Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel and Gujarat BJP chief CR Paatil. Neither of the two top BJP leaders showed up at this event. But a slew of senior Congress leaders, including AICC general secretary in charge of Gujarat Raghu Sharma and GPCC chief Jagdish Thakor, attended it, with Sharma declaring that Hardik would play a “major role” in the state assembly elections in which, he hoped, the Congress would “form a government”.

The Gujarat Assembly polls, slated for December this year, is likely to witness a triangular contest involving the BJP, the Congress and the new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

A Patidar from the Kadva sub-group, Hardik, 28, whose family has roots in Dhrangadhra, hails from Chandan Nagri, a small agrarian Patidar-dominated village in Viramgam taluka in Ahmedabad district. He did his graduation from Sahajanand College in Ahmedabad, which is affiliated to Gujarat University. His first brush with politics took place in this college when he was elected as its general secretary. Later, Hardik’s stint with public life got underway with his association with a Lalji Patel-led social organization Sardar Patel Group (SPG), based in North Gujarat’s Mehsana, which had begun agitation seeking the OBC quota for Patidars. Hardik, who was handling the SPG’s social media affairs, broke away to float the PAAS and took charge of the Patidar quota agitation.

The idea for launching a campaign on the quota issue seemed to have been conceived as several Patidar youths would approach Hardik for admission to higher education institutes and he would not be able to secure it because of the “OBC quota” factor, his late father Bharat had said in an interview with The Indian Express.

Hardik’s sister Monica was among such students, aspiring to do a post-graduation course in human resource management or labor welfare, who did not get admission despite securing “high marks”. This episode was said to be among the reasons that pushed him to launch an agitation on the issue.

The Patidar stir, pressing for inclusion of the community in the OBC quota list, began in July 2015, starting with some peaceful rallies in different parts of Gujarat. This turned violent when a mob set fire to the office of a BJP MLA Rushikesh Pate, the current Gujarat health minister.

Hardik, Lalji, and another leader AK Patel were convicted in this case in 2018, which was recently stayed by the Supreme Court. The Patidar agitation saw a huge rally on August 25 that year in Ahmedabad’s GMDC ground, where nearly five lakh Patidars gathered. The rally turned violent and sparked riots in various parts of Gujarat. Altogether 14 Patidars lost their lives in these incidents, as the police tried to quell the riots. The episode however catapulted Hardik to the state’s political stage as a promising young leader, although he was booked in several criminal cases, including three sedition cases, and was arrested later that year. He was released on bail in July 2016 with a condition to stay away from Gujarat for six months.

During his exile, Hardik stayed in Rajasthan’s Udaipur, returning to Gujarat in 2017. In August 2018, he sat on a hunger strike for 19 days pressing again for reservation for the Patidar community. Hardik later sought to take credit for the 10 per cent quota the BJP-ruled Center announced for the economically-backward upper castes, claiming that it was a consequence of his agitation.

The 2015 local body elections in Gujarat saw the Congress’s victory in several bodies, which was largely credited to Patidars’ disenchantment with the BJP. This trend continued till the 2017 Assembly polls in which the Congress won 77 of the total 182 seats, which marked its highest tally since the BJP rule began in the state in the mid-1990s.

Following his induction into the Congress three years ago, Hardik was declared its “star poll campaigner” and was given a special chopper for campaigning in the 2019 general elections, which caused heartburns among senior Gujarat Congress leaders.

Hardik was also the only star campaigner from Gujarat that the Congress had participated in the recent Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand Assembly elections.

Last year, on Hardik’s persuasion, Independent MLA and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and ex-JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar joined the Congress in Rahul’s presence. However, while Mevani and Kanhaiya attended the party’s Chintan Shivir, held in Udaipur last week, Hardik skipped the event.

Hardik, who has already expressed his desire to contest the upcoming polls, has claimed that he campaigned for the Congress with the backing of his own team. A Hardik aid and ex-PAAS leader says, “Hardik is the only leader apart from Indravijaysinh Gohil (GPCC general secretary), who has a team in every Gujarat district. His loss will prove very costly to the Congress.”

There have been speculations in Gujarat’s political circles that Hardik could join the BJP. The Gujarat AAP leaders have also been wooing him to get him on board. He is expected to announce his next move at a press conference on Thursday.


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