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'This is Patels' gharvapsi': How Congress-PAAS alliance functions on the ground

Aditya Menon | Updated on: 4 December 2017, 16:38 IST
(PTI)

Few even within the Congress would dispute that the Assembly elections in Gujarat wouldn't have been such a close contest had it not been for the Patidar agitation and Hardik Patel.

It is the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti's efforts that have brought the Congress close to covering up the 8-10% gap in vote share that the BJP has had over it since 2002. Even the "Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe" slogan emanated from PAAS and became the theme of this election, forcing the BJP to respond with "Hu Chhu Vikas, Hu Chhu Gujarat".

However on the ground, the alliance faces two obstacles: First, that the social compositions of the Congress and the PAAS are different. Second, the difficulties in coordinating between PAAS and Congress rank and file.

Convincing Patidars

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While Patidars have been anti-Congress for nearly four decades, the Grand Old Party is popular among communities such as Muslims and Dalits, who have often been at the receiving end of Patidar aggression at the ground level.

Overcoming this divide isn't easy.

"The older generation in our community haven't voted for the Congress since 1970s. It is not easy to convince them to change this habit. But the anger, particularly among those who are into farming, is such that they will vote for anyone to defeat BJP," Shailendra Patel, a PAAS supporter told Catch.

Hardik Patel has been careful not to openly canvass for the Congress or even praise the party. But his message is unambiguous: 'vote out the BJP'.

In almost every rally he says, "Don't think your problems will end if Congress comes to power. But if you bring back the BJP, they would know that you are fools and can be taken for granted," he says.

Sometimes, he campaigns for the Congress in subtle ways.

During his roadshow in Surat on Sunday, he asked the crowd, "Have you decided who to vote for?". "Congress" the crowd shouted back.

To this Hardik replied, "If you have decided, I also stand by your decision and will vote accordingly... but don't change your mind on voting day. If we change our mind, we don't have the DNA of Patidars".

While Hardik sends the signal that he is independent of the Congress, the task of openly seeking votes for the party is usually assigned to the PAAS district convenor or any other middle rung leader.

In Morbi, PAAS district convenor Manoj Panara, did the job during Hardik Patel's meeting in Khakhrechi on Wednesday.

"BJP says we are traitors as we are going to the Congress. We aren't going to Pakistan. Congress is a political party of this country. We are going back to our leader Sardar Patel's party. It is our Gharvapsi," Panara said.

A similar comment was made be a leader during Patel's rally in Rajkot as well.

"BJP tries to show Congress is an untouchable. That's not the case. Patidars want a party that will treat them as equals and not deny our rights. Dealing as equals is the key. For Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, no one is an equal. This is unacceptable to us Patidars" a PAAS functionary told Catch.

Another narrative that the Hardik and PAAS functionaries build is that Patidars built the BJP but it was "usurped by Modi, Shah and their cabal".

"We were with the BJP of Keshubhai Patel, the BJP of Savjibai Korat. We were with the BJP of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. We don't support the BJP of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, General Dyer and Bepani vala Rupani," Patel said in Khakrechi.

General Dyer is a monicker used for Anandiben Patel, as Patidar protestors were killed in police firing during her tenure. And Bepani vala Rupani refers to current CM Vijay Rupani and is a pun in the poor water supply in villages

"Sardar Patel's Congress vs Modi-Shah's BJP" is the narrative that PAAS is trying to weave to remove the stigma attached to the Congress among Patidars.

Coordination on the ground

The relations between Congress and PAAS differs across constituencies.

For instance, In Dhoraji seat of Rajkot district, PAAS has virtually taken over the entire Congress unit.

The Congress candidate is PAAS Saurashtra convenor Lalitbhai Vasoya. PAAS supporters dominate most of the Congress campaign offices in Dhoraji town. Patels form over 40% of the electorate in this seat, which has been the fiefdom of Leuva Patidar strongman, Vitthal Radadiya, presently the BJP MP from Porbandar.

When Radadiya shifted from the Congress to the BJP in 2013, the Congress organisation in Dhoraji had collapsed, except for some presence in Dalit and Muslim pockets.

"Earlier Congress in Dhoraji depended on Vitthal Radadiya, now they are relying on Lalitbhai Vasoya and Hardik Patel's supporters. What difference does it make?" said Hussainbhai, a committed Congress voter.

On being asked if there is any resentment towards PAAS, he said, "Not at all. Hardik Patel is one of the few leaders who speaks out against communalism. We appreciate that," he said.

Rakeshbhai, a Dalit and a Congress supporter, is less enthusiastic, but says that the Congress had no choice

"This is a Patidar seat. The Congress can't win from here unless it fields a Patidar. And that's what they have done," he said.

However, there is an element of arrogance in the PAAS' approach towards traditional Congress supporters in Dhoraji.

"We don't need their support, they just need to come and vote," Hitesh, a PAAS volunteer told Catch.

Back in Rajkot the relationship between the two entities is very different

Several functionaries of the Rajkot unit of the Congress said that Hardik Patel or PAAS didn't coordinate with them for the massive PAAS rally last Wednesday.

"They organise rallies and functions based on their own plans. We have nothing to do with it," an office bearer of the district Congress told Catch.

Congress functionaries do attend the rallies though, as members of the audience .
However, in some ways this strategy suits the Congress.

Since there is absolutely no involvement of the Congress in Hardik Patel's rallies, the Election Commission can't ask the party about the expenditure of the rallies.

However in terms of political impact, the rallies damage the BJP and help the Congress than even many Congress public meetings.

Indranil Rajyaguru, the Congress candidate from CM Rupani's constituency Rajkot West, admits that Patel's rally has been beneficial for him.

"Of course, it will benefit me. Hardik Patel effectively articulates the anger against the BJP, government," Rajyaguru told Catch.

In some areas there has been friction, with local Congress units resenting PAAS dominance. In other areas PAAS cadres feel that they aren't getting the importance they deserve. But in most cases, the desire to defeat BJP overrides the pinpricks.

Viewed from a larger picture, the two outfits are operating in complimentary ways. Hardik Patel and PAAS organise rallies focussing on Patidar rights and farmers' woes across the state, to consolidate Patidars against BJP. The Congress focuses on ensuring that its own voter base stays intact and assure voters that it is capable of defeating the BJP.

An added bonus is the cat and mouse game that Hardik Patel appears to have lured BJP into.

The Congress-PAAS alliance is a fascinating political experiment of the oldest political party in India aligning with a two-year old caste-based social movement. It is alliance that is driven by rural anger that afflicts the supporters of both and the desire to defeat the BJP. It would be interesting to see how the election verdict shapes this alliance.

First published: 4 December 2017, 16:38 IST
 
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