As a medley of remix songs from Bollywood flicks — Baahubali, Sultan and Jodha Akbar — reaches its crescendo, a cavalcade of SUVs carrying Hardik Patel zooms into a field in the Siddhpur block of Patan district on Sunday evening. A well-groomed security guard in SPG style-suit guarding the young leader drops onto the ground as the vehicles swerve violently. But the cavalcade moves on. A few minutes later, Hardik appears on the dais in the midst of slogans that describe him as a "lion" or "shahanshah".
There is a touch of the surreal. And Hardik relishes every bit.
The meeting is well-attended. The venue is largely filled with Muslims who have a sizable population in Patan. The rally is called the 'Jan Vedna Rally' (rally against people’s plight). Completely ignored by the Congress party, their conventional political refuge, Muslims have found a new hope in Hardik. "We are winning most of the seats in Patan," says a group of Muslims. Their logic is simple: "Unlike the past, this time Hindutva is not the dominant theme".
Ironically, the Jan Vedna rally begins with chants of "Om Shanti" and "Bharat Mata ki Jai". Although some of the speakers, cognisant of the large attendance of Muslims, emphasise Patel-Muslim unity, the pronounced Hindutva tone can hardly be missed. That is no surprise. Gujarat's political and social history shows that Patidars have had no particular affection for Muslims. If anything, they have been at the forefront of the religious divide in the state. It would be naïve to assume that Patidars will have become secularised overnight. The Muslims’ perceived proximity to Patidars this time around in this part of Gujarat is tactical, guided by the hope of retrieving power from Narendra Modi after 16 straight years. And Hardik is their hope.
Veteran journalist and socialist thinker Prakash Shah draws an apt analogy of today's Gujarat with the political situation in the country in 1974. He calls this the 'Bobby moment' of politics in Gujarat. He relates a conversation with Jay Prakash Narayan to explain what he means. "JP asked me to describe the political scenario as I saw it. I told him it is the 'Bobby moment' of Indian politics. That was the time when new actors had emerged with a radically different theme. I told him that something similar was happening in politics and that a crop of new leaders was emerging to replace the older ones. Even JP could not remain untouched by the Bobby moment," he concludes.
The film Bobby was released in September 1973. In an era dominated by older, established actors such as Dharmendra (then 38) and Amitabh Bachchan (31), it starred Rishi Kapoor, 21, and Dimple Kapadia, 16, in lead roles. It was both a generational and genre shift, introducing teenage romance to Bollywood. It became a sensational hit and left a deep impact on Bollywood. Shah sees hope in the emergence of Hardik, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor.
But he qualifies his optimism by saying, "I am not sure whether or not they will mature into seasoned leaders."
The manner in which Hardik has been moving around in Gujarat is indicative of his juvenile conduct backed by lumpenised forces. His cavalcade consists of the most expensive SUVs — impossible for a budding leader to hire. And he is brazen about displaying his newfound wealth, status and clout. A case in point was his almost (Donald) Trumpesque reaction to the sex-tape controversy.
That said, there is no doubt that Gujarat has been passing through a bizarre phase of electoral politics where one of two principal poles — the Congress — has set much store by the perceived charm of Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh rather than on its own intrinsic strength. The Congress still retains a substantial support base but that is playing second fiddle to the supposed might of three young newcomers. Since the state has always seen a bipolar contest, caste, religious combinations and rural-urban divide are overly emphasised before the polls, forcing the Congress to play a diminished role.
By all indications, this is the silliest political experiment that the Congress has undertaken in recent years.
While driving along national and state highways, lanes and bylanes of urban and rural areas, one could easily sense the prevailing mood of disappointment with the BJP and its leadership over the high expectations of the voters. Yet, that does not seem to have turned into popular anger against the BJP in general and Modi in particular. Far from it, people still retain trust in Modi although they are increasingly fatigued by the BJP’s state leadership, which is seen as a bunch of "arrogant leaders" not rooted to the ground.
But any keen observer of Gujarat politics will confirm that disaffection with the BJP has never had any correlation with popularity of Modi. In fact, in a series of elections right since 2002, Modi’s individual charm has been sailing the BJP through elections. And it is highly unlikely that the situation has changed now. Across the state, this electoral battle is seen more as prestige for Modi than the BJP. Given Modi’s own son-of-the-soil image having risen to the status of Prime Minister of India, the battle for his prestige has acquired a distinct feature of "Gujarati asmita" (Gujarati pride). This is very evident when one talks to the non-Patel and non-Muslim electorate that is still drawn to Modi.
Far removed from the reality, the Congress' experiments are quite bizarre. For instance, Rahul Gandhi’s projection of a "janeu-dhari Hindu" (twice born Hindu of Brahmanical order) by his image-managers can hardly be a political project for secularising the voters. His overemphasis on Hindu identity only firms up that Hindutva that has permeated deep into Gujarat’s society over the years.
Similarly notwithstanding Patidars’ assertion, the historical fact remains that the Anamat Andolan (reservation movement) had its origin in violently opposing the reservation for OBCs, tribals and Dalits. And Patidars are perceived to be religiously more dogmatic than others as reflected in the Patidar movement that resulted in large-scale communal violence. Against such a historical backdrop, the Congress' move to sidestep its traditional support base to forge an intrinsically incompatible social alliance runs the risk of being politically counter-productive. The surreal politics in Gujarat may prove to be a 'Bobby moment' in terms of titillation of the senses for the masses.
But it is bound to end like an aberration sooner than later.
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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2017 15:04:44 IST