On Amit Shah's home turf in Gujarat's Mansa, as the sun sets on Saturday, a few dozen volunteers are arranging chairs in front of a giant hoarding of Hardik Patel.
From a distance they all look the same. On their heads they have an Arvind Kejriwal-esque topi that proudly proclaims, Hoon chhu Patidar (I am Patidar. A blue scarf with Hardik's image printed on it dangles around their necks. On their identical white T-shirts, they have an even bigger image of Hardik on the chest.
And they wear their loyalty on the sleeve. "We will do what Hardik tells us. Every Patidar is with him," they chant in unison, waving their blue flags, as TV cameras waiting for the young leader pan on their eager, excited faces. "We are declaring war on the BJP on Amit Shah's home turf. Under Hardik's leadership, we will drive the BJP out of Gujarat," they claim.
Hardik is expected to arrive at the venue a good three hours later. But, everything in Mansa, around 30 km from Gandhinagar, is an ode to his importance. In front of the dais, TV crews are jostling for space. On the roads leading to the venue of Hardik's "Prestige Rally", dozens of police vehicles are guarding the roads. In the streets there is palpable excitement about the "revelations" Hardik is expected to make to counter videos released by his rivals, showing him in the company of women.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Hardik's young supporters seem to concur. "The videos have added to his popularity. More people would come to see him today," his supporters say excitedly. Others think he is doing exactly what young people are supposed to do. "Hardik 23 varsh no chhokro chhe, atyare maja nahin kare to kyare karshe? (He is a 23-year-old boy. If he doesn't have fun now, when will he?)"
Hardik's popularity is an enigma, perhaps an embodiment of the maxim that greatness is thrust upon some people. For he just doesn't fit the image of the gamechanger of this election. If you were to spot him in a bazaar, or a social gathering, you would be forgiven for ignoring him as any other Gujarati youngster who loves to fiddle with his mobile. Not an inch of his middling frame matches the aura built around him.
His ideology is also suspect. A few years ago, he was just a leader of a band of youth committed to protect the honour of Patidar women, a sort of anti-Romeo private police, if you will. In that role, as he had proudly told me two years ago, he had broken several hands as punishment for touching his Patidar sisters. Later, after he became a anamat andolan (reservation movement) leader, Hardik swung from one end of the political pendulum to the other, sometimes idolising the Shiv Sena, sometimes flirting with Kejriwal, and then finally tilting towards the Congress. In his short tenure as a leader, Hardik has, quintessentially, knocked on the door of contrasting ideologies and political outfits. Yet, he remains the Pied Piper of the Patidars.
Why did this happen? The biggest reason behind his unwavering appeal is his commitment to the root cause of his existence--the demand for reservation for Patidars. His followers believe that Hardik may have many flaws, but his refusal to back down from the demand for quota for Patidars in spite of hardships, jail terms and excessive pressure from the government entitle him to heroism and loyalty of the community, especially the Patidar youth. Also, Hardik may have flirted with many friends, but when it comes to animus, he has been loyal to the BJP, treating it as his bitter foe. All this has ensured that every time he goes out, hundreds of followers surround him; every time he asks for the support of Patidars, thousands converge at his rallies.
For some reason—and this requires a deeper analysis—Gujaratis love strong leaders with an aura of ruthlessness. Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Hardik Patel, in many ways, symbols of this Gujarati yearning for leaders who talk tough, appear larger than life and pursue their goals—political and social—with a steely resolve and single-minded devotion. Though it would be puerile to compare Modi and Shah with an upstart like Hardik, the point is, their acceptability and popularity are rooted in an identical mindset.'
The key question now is, can Hardik live up to the reputation? Can he deliver what he threatens? His supporters claim most of the Patidars are with him. Neutral analysts claim he has the support of the Patidar youth but the older generation doesn't like him. And his detractors argue he is just a rabble-rouser who would soon fade away.
Since elections for the Gujarat Assembly are almost a month away, the jury is still out. But, there is one precedent that needs to be kept in mind. Soon after the Patidar stir in July 2015, the BJP suffered serious losses in elections for panchayats in Gujarat. This was largely attributed to the anger amid Patidars and Hardik's call for uprooting the BJP.
Many believe that Hardik is an example of Keshubhai Patel syndrome. In 2012, Patel, a former chief minister and Patidar leader, had broken away from the BJP to contest the polls. His presence was widely believed to be a threat to the BJP, predicated on the hope that he would take away a section of Patel votes from the BJP. But, on the day of the elections, all Keshubhai had to be happy with was a shared piece of mithai with Modi, who, in a crafty display of both humility and hubris, visited the defeated leader's home to seek his blessings after another resounding victory.
But, the difference between Hardik and Keshubhai Patel, essentially, was this: While one of them has been fighting for the Patidars for quite some time, the other had floated a political party just before the elections, and, thus, appeared to be opportunistic.
If voters look at Hardik a little more kindly than Keshubhai, this time the mithai may literally be in some other plate. But, whatever be the outcome of the election, you have to give at least this much to Hardik: For the first time in the history of Indian democracy, a 23-year-old who can't even contest an election has become the game changer.
Such is his value that the only question now worth exploring is this: How many votes can Hardik swing in the election?
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Updated Date: Nov 23, 2017 14:37:21 IST