Sunil Gatade | The Gujarat ‘extraction’: Hardik’s journey to BJP

Hardik bidding goodbye to the Congress over a week ago had not come as a surprise, much less shock

Former Congress leader Hardik Patel’s attack on the Aam Aadmi Party this week is a pointer that, sooner rather than later, he is going to join the BJP in poll-bound Gujarat. His bidding goodbye to the Congress over a week ago had not come as a surprise, much less shock. The 28-year-old working president of the Gujarat Congress had made up his mind to dump the Grand Old Party.

Mr Patel’s parting of ways with the Congress needs to be seen as an “extraction” by the powers-that be of a leader who had proved to be a tough nut to crack in the last Assembly polls. It was a tacit admission that Rahul Gandhi at the national level and the “three musketeers” in the state had then given the BJP a run for its money.

The BJP wanted to break the back of the disorganised and dispirited Congress Party. The last Assembly polls were a unique challenge for the BJP as the Congress had prepared a heady social cocktail. With Hardik Patel representing the restive Patidar community, Alpesh Thakore from the OBC and Jignesh Mewani of the dalit community at its command, the Congress had all the firepower at its disposal. It was led by a “Janeaudhari Brahmin” to blunt the Hindutva in the BJP’s “laboratory”.

This “extraction” was necessary as the Patidar community is influential and is said to be the deciding factor in at least 50 Assembly seats in the state and plays an important role in many other constituencies. The BJP is also seeking to humour the community as it has denied the chief ministership to its top Patel leader, Nitin Patel, who had been deputy CM for a long time.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been towering over the affairs of Gujarat for the past two decades and his success lies in the fact that he has been an expert in macro- and micro-managing the affairs of the state, which the faithful proclaim as the “Gujarat Model”. So, there is no need to give anyone else the credit for Hardik’s parting of ways.

It is but natural that a general seeks to take the enemy by surprise and also makes every effort to deplete its strength. In political terms, it is also called “divide and rule”. Some political observers insist that the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP becoming active in Gujarat should also be seen in this context. So far, Gujarat is a state where only the BJP and the Congress count. The last time the Congress won the polls was way back in 1985.

The fact remains that Mr Modi excels in demoralising his detractors to the maximum extent possible, and Rahul Gandhi has been his favourite punching bag for the past eight years. The “Pappu” campaign by Modi supporters hasn’t come out of thin air. In the BJP scheme of things, everything has an agenda and a purpose.

While as of now the BJP is sitting pretty, it doesn’t get complacent. That is why the Prime Minister, by turning proactive last year, virtually sacked chief minister Vijay Rupani and his entire Cabinet amidst reports of the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was like a surgical strike aimed at removing “anti-incumbency”. What the Prime Minister did after that was almost unthinkable. He brought an entire team of freshers as CM and ministers. The new CM, Bhupendra Patel, is also a first-term MLA, having been elected from a seat earlier represented by Anandiben Patel, to whom Mr Modi had entrusted Gujarat when he moved to New Delhi in May 2014.

Mr Modi might have changed the grammar of politics in Gujarat and in the country in the past decade or so, but it is also a fact that on his home turf he hasn’t been able to better the 149-seat tally of the Congress under Madhavsinh Solanki way back in the 1980s. At that time, Mr Solanki’s trump card was KHAM, an alliance of Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Minorities.

Gujarat had witnessed a strange spectacle in the past two decades where Ahmed Patel was the strongest leader, being the political secretary of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, but Mr Modi called the shots in the state. This will be the first election after the demise of Ahmed Bhai over a year back amid the Covid-19 pandemic and Hardik Patel’s departure is going to make matters even more slippery for the Grand Old Party.

Despite the fact that the Congress secured 77 seats in the outgoing House, it failed to keep its flock together and the fact that over a dozen MLAs dumped the party so far tells its own story. There is certainly a message behind Hardik’s exit. The BJP wants to proclaim from the rooftops that by any stretch of imagination, the Congress can never come anywhere close to the winning post.

If reports are to be believed, then the Congress too is bracing for life after Hardik by seeking to induct another weighty Patel. It has for long been wooing Khodaldham chief Naresh Patel, but nothing is certain till he finally takes the plunge in active politics and joins the Congress.

Mr Modi over the years has been busy painting the Congress as a “party of Muslims”. But despite this, the Congress’ offensive in the 2017 polls was the scariest for the BJP in recent times as Rahul Gandhi managed to restrict the BJP to 99 seats in the 182-member House. The Congress’ challenge was never so real since Mr Modi became Gujarat “chowkidar”, and later that of the nation. The magnitude of the Congress’ challenge can be gauged from the fact that the BJP boasted it would get 150 seats.

With his eye on the next Lok Sabha elections, the Prime Minister wants to register a huge win in his backyard. With the BJP in the driver’s seat after its triumph in four states, including Uttar Pradesh, Mr Modi wants to break Solanki’s 149-seat record. The “extraction” of Hardik Patel from the Congress should be seen in this context. The less the impact of castes and communities, the more fertile is the ground for Hindutva — that is the BJP’s belief.

In 2002, Gujarat was a ripe fruit for the Congress to pluck. The BJP lost the gram panchayat elections in 2001 and three Assembly byelections the same year, and was badly rattled. But then occurred the Godhra train incident, and its aftermath. The rest is history.

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