He dresses like Arvind Kejriwal – in shirt, trousers and cap — and speaks like Bal Thackeray — with earthy humour and proverbs. And like the AAP leader and the late Shiv Sena supremo, Hardik Patel came into politics on the strength of popular protests. As Gujarat votes in the second phase of state Assembly elections today, the arc lights are on the Patidar quota leader who seeks to embrace the state’s youth the way Kejriwal drew people with his anti-corruption campaign in Delhi, and Thackeray amassed crowds with his pro-Maharasthra movement. Patel, 24, supported the Congress in the polls. In his rallies, however, he did not openly back the party but urged the people not to vote for the BJP. His political foes said he has a limited hold over the state’s voters. But supporters of Patel believed the state’s youth stood behind him. “He is the voice of the youth of Gujarat and not of any specific caste. Hardik talks about issues which are relevant to the state and its people, especially the young,” said Abhay Raj, a Rajput doctor and an ardent supporter. The founder of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) extended support to the Congress after the party said it would address the issue of reservations for the community. “We will win the elections and get 100 seats. The BJP will lose,” he told PTI on the sidelines of a recent rally.
PAAS’s election rallies in the state were similar to those of the Aam Aadmi Party. There were no chairs on the dais, or big banners. Like a DJ, he picked up the microphone and spoke to the gathering, walking up and down the stage. “This boy will do in Gujarat in this election what Kejriwal did in the Delhi Assembly elections,” said a supporter from Vadodara. Patel, who came to the forefront of state politics after he launched an agitation for quotas in jobs and education for the Patel community, did not mention reservations when he addressed large rallies in areas not dominated by Patels. Instead, he spoke of jobs and problems of farmers. The PAAS leader addressed the people in Gujarati, peppering his speeches with humour and popular proverbs, the way Thackeray did in Maharashtra. Patel poked fun at the BJP’s poll promises and at Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“I recharged my 4G phone but I don’t even get 2G here. And they talk about digital India,” he said at a rally. Many in the BJP were not amused. “Hardik’s Thackeray style of politics will not work here. This is Gujarat, where it’s difficult to divide the people over caste,” a state BJP leader said. He said Patel’s influence was limited to the younger members of the Patel community in a few pockets in the state. “He does not have much support among elderly Patels in central Gujarat and educated Patidars,” the BJP leader said. For Patel, though, Thackeray is an inspiration. In an earlier interview to a newspaper, he had talked about following in on the Sena leader’s footsteps.
“Bal Thackeray is a leader, not a politician,” he had said. Patel’s supporters were convinced he would make a dent in the BJP’s vote share. “He is the icon of the youth and will demolish the BJP,” said his associate Lalbhai, who drives Patel’s car. He is among the scores of PAAS volunteers who travelled with Patel to roadshows and rallies, all wearing yellow caps. The controversy that broke out last month on alleged sex tapes featuring Patel did not trouble them, with many supporters claiming that he was a victim of dirty politics.
“He is the pride of Gujarat,” said Umang Patel, a 22- year-old man from Patel’s hometown Viramgam. Patel did not directly canvass for the Congress in his rallies. Instead, he urged the people to vote out the BJP, which has been ruling the state for 20 years. “He is the best communicator in the state after Modi,” said state convener of the Centre for the Study of Developing of Societies (CSDS), Mahashweta Jani. That he speaks in Gujarati along with his narrative style works in his favour, she said. “He is raising issues the way Kejriwal did, and these resonate among the poor across castes in the state,” she said.