Politics

The Rise and Fall of a Patel Patriot

Hardik Patel’s failure to disrupt the India-South Africa cricket match in Rajkot was not the first but the last indication of the Patidar agitation fizzling out

Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti Conveyor Hardik Patel arrested by the police on his way to protest the Cricket match near Rajkot on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti Conveyor Hardik Patel arrested by the police on his way to protest the Cricket match near Rajkot on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Ahmedabad: 22-year-old Hardik Patel’s agitation for reservations for the Patel community under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category may have shaken the Anandiben Patel government a few months ago. But by Sunday, when his threats to hold the India-South Africa one-day cricket match in Rajkot to ransom proved hollow, his movement had come to a whimpering halt.

Hardik and a dozen or so of his supporters were picked up by the police before they could even start for the Khanderi cricket stadium. Unlike earlier arrests, his detention evoked almost no angry reaction from the community. In fact, the thin crowd at the beginning of the match swelled to capacity after Hardik’s arrest.

Patel had threatened to lay siege to the stadium with 50,000 supporters and prevent the Indian and South African teams from reaching there. But his crowd failed to gather. Instead, tight police security both inside and outside the stadium as well as at the hotels where the teams were staying, frisking of every spectator, and BJP workers wearing Narendra Modi T-shirts spreading out among the stadium crowds – all prevented Hardik and his boys from disrupting the match.

The failure to disrupt the event was not the first but the last indication of the Patidar agitation fizzling out. Last seen, Hardik was running through fields like a petty thief with the police in hot pursuit, feigning disappearance before emerging on a Gujarati TV channel to claim he was kidnapped.

The brief career of a Sardar Patel manqué

 Less than four months ago, this boy from Viramgam tehsil, in Ahmedabad’s backyard, came as a bolt from the blue to shake Gujarat’s comfortable political firmament. Till then, it was almost entirely ruled by Narendra Modi and the BJP. Coming from a community which has supported the BJP through the decades, the launch of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) confounded the state’s rulers. Patidar is the umbrella term for both Patel denominations, the Leuva Patels and Kadwa Patels,. The two are otherwise perennially at loggerheads.

At first, the government simply ignored Hardik, but as his rallies began to attract huge crowds, the Anandiben Patel government pushed the panic button. She announced that a quota for the Patels was not possible under the Constitution which allows reservation only up to 50%. Then, she issued fervent public appeals to the Patels not to be misguided by this agitation. Nothing of this cut any ice and Hardik’s first big motorcycle rally in Surat drew some five lakh youngsters, followed by a bigger one in Ahmedabad on August 26.

A police crackdown on the August 26 rally resulted in a strong reaction from the community and late-night violence that left 12 people dead. Emboldened by the success of his rallies, Hardik then announced that he would take out a “reverse” Dandi Yatra from South Gujarat, from where Mahatma Gandhi had begun his march against the Salt Act of the British in 1930.

Unable to come up with a suitable response to this sudden agitation by the Patel youngsters, the government buckled under and constituted a committee headed by senior cabinet minister Nitin Patel to look into their demands. Hardik and his men were also invited to meet the Chief Minister on September 14.

However, instead of referring to quotas at the meeting, Hardik and his supporters demanded action against all 4,200 policemen who cracked down on the Ahmedabad rally. They also wanted Minister of State for Home Rajnikant Patel suspended. The government sought 10 days’ time to respond, asking Hardik to suspend his rallies and public demonstrations in the meantime.

The fatal mis-steps

This is where Hardik Patel – who by now was nurturing grandiose ambitions of pooling together all the Patels known by different surnames across the country – broke the first rule that guides mature negotiators.

Emerging from that meeting, he announced that the “reverse” Dandi Yatra would still be taken out on September 19, though under the name of an Ekta Yatra (Unity march). This is exactly where the fall of his agitation started and the government, finally, decided on a strategic crackdown. BJP insiders claim this was after advice from Delhi.

Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code was clamped, preventing the assembly of more than four persons at all locations Hardik and his supporters were likely to meet. The Chief Minister’s Office issued stern instructions to crush the agitation.

The aggressive youngster retorted that the Yatra would be taken out even if it meant jail for him and his team. However, on D-day, Hardik could neither gather the steam nor the people to implement his plan.

This was only in part because of the tough stance of the government. More importantly, a newly formed counter outfit, the OBC Ekta Manch – supported strongly by the state’s Dalits and Adivasis – had threatened a counter-rally from Dandi. South Gujarat has a strong presence of OBCs and Adivasis where Hardik’s move could have boomeranged.

September 19 saw Hardik Patel in panic. He kept on changing the launch pad of the yatra till the last moment and finally sought a safe sanctuary in Surat’s Patel-majority Varachha area to start his rally. Despite being a stronghold of the PAAS, hardly 50 people gathered there. The police allowed that public meeting to happen and then whisked away Hardik and 30 of his supporters before releasing them in the night. There was no protest, no violence, nothing.

Escape and court reprimand

Traffic jam on the Rajkot-Jamnagar highway after the arrest of Hardik Patel on Sunday. Credit: PTI

Traffic jam on the Rajkot-Jamnagar highway after the arrest of Hardik Patel on Sunday. Credit: PTI

A few days later, on September 22, Hardik addressed a meeting attended by 2,000 people in Aravalli district without obtaining any police permission. The police swung into action but he escaped in a cavalcade of cars. On finding road blockades laid by the police all around, he abandoned his car and ran through a nearby field.

His supporters later claimed he was kidnapped and one of them filed a habeas corpus petition in the Gujarat High Court past midnight seeking directions to the police to produce him. However, the next day Hardik appeared before a Gujarati TV channel and said he was kidnapped, to be left on the highway near Ahmedabad. He and his lawyers got a tongue lash from the High Court for taking it ‘for a ride.’

Finally, as if to drive the last nail in his coffin, Hardik Patel was arrested on Monday on sedition charges for advising his supporters to kill policemen, rather than commit suicide to demand reservation. Around a fortnight ago, he went to Surat to meet one Vipul Desai from the Patel community who reportedly tried to commit suicide in support of the pro-quota agitation. A clipping of the conversation was all over social media where Hardik told him: “If you have so much courage…then go and kill a couple of policemen. Patels never commit suicide.”

He was also slapped with another charge of insulting the national flag in Rajkot on Sunday ahead of the India-South Africa cricket match following a complaint by Romel Sutaria of the Adivasi Kisan Sangharsh Samiti of Surat district. Sutaria alleged that Hardik held the national flag upside down and released a video showing this.