With Hardik Patel raising the banner of revolt against the BJP-run state government in Gujarat, there is speculation over whether Patidars, the community the young leader claims to represent, will switch from being BJP voters to Congress supporters.
Patel recently declared support for the Congress after the party’s proposal for reservations was found to be “acceptable” by his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS).
But if there’s one district which will be a litmus test for both political parties, it’s Surat.
OBCs and Patidars will be the deciding voters in the district’s 16 Vidhan Sabha seats. And tempers in Surat have certainly not been calm. So intense has been the battle for Patidar support that BJP and PAAS workers even came to blows as the battle spilled out onto the streets of Surat.
The drama unfolded in Varacchha area of Surat on the intervening night of Thursday and Friday as a protest by PAAS turned ugly. PAAS workers, who were protesting at the local BJP office, clashed with policemen and had to be carted away in police vehicles. This has been a recurring pattern in Surat with Patidar youth interrupting BJP events.
In September this year, ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Diamond City, Patidar activists had clashed with BJP workers. The clashes resulted in buses being torched and Patidar activists being detained.
In another incident in November last year, a BJP event being addressed by party chief Amit Shah was disrupted when a few Patidar men flung chairs at the venue.
Thursday night’s protests began around 11:30 pm when PAAS workers gathered outside a newly-inaugurated BJP office. According to reports, PAAS workers even pelted stones at the BJP office, which led to an altercation with BJP workers present at the office. This was followed by more anti-BJP sloganeering by PAAS workers and soon, the police came and took five PAAS workers into custody. They were taken to the Varachcha police station.
The protesters then marched to Varachcha police station and held demonstrations against the police for detaining their colleagues. PAAS workers then proceeded to pelt stones at the police station, which prompted the police to retaliate.
Policemen responded with lathicharge, leading to clashes. Police detained a total of 45 people, including Congress candidates Dinesh Kachadiya (Surat North), Dhirubhai Gajera (Varachcha Road) and Bhavesh Rabari (Karanj), and PAAS Surat district convener Alpesh Katheria.
Surat district has over 60.79 lakh voters, spread across 16 Assembly constituencies. Patidars form a substantial chunk of the electorate in the district and are, in many seats, the deciding bloc. This is, perhaps, most evident in Varachha Road constituency. A largely urban seat, it has nearly 1.96 lakh voters, with 1.11 lakh men and over 85,000 women. Over 1.5 lakh voters here are Patidars. The community forms over 77% of the entire electorate and no candidate can hope to win without their support. The election in Varachha will boil down to this — will Patidars vote as a single united bloc this time? If yes, who will they pick?
As one would expect, both BJP and Congress have fielded Patidar candidates from the Varachha Road seat. The Congress has fielded Patidar activist Dhirubhai Gajera, a former two-time BJP MLA who had been a vocal critic of then chief minister Narendra Modi even when he was in the BJP. This led to Gajera’s expulsion from the party and he has been fighting on a Congress ticket ever since. The BJP has fielded another Patidar, Kumarbhai Kanani.
The Varachha Road assembly seat was created following the delimitation exercise in 2008. In the 2012 elections, BJP candidate Kishorbhai Kanani defeated Gajera by a massive margin. The vote share difference between the two was nearly 16%, with the BJP polling 53.78% of the votes and Congress securing just 37.80%. This indicates that local Patidars in 2012 had reposed their faith in the BJP. This time, the BJP would hope that the equation in Varachha Road remains unchanged.
On Monday, as Kumarbhai Kanani made his way to the election office to file his nomination papers, he was accompanied by hundreds of Patidar youth on motorcycles and in cars, waving the BJP flag. The demonstration of strength, Kanani later told the press, was proof that Patidars were very much with the BJP and would not support his Congress rival.
But the violent events of Thursday night, have once again cast doubts over whether Patidars would remain steadfastly behind the BJP. Both parties have been reaching out to the community.
In October, barely two months before the elections, the state government and the district administration withdrew cases against over 600 Patidar youth from Surat district. Meanwhile, Congress V-P Rahul Gandhi, during his visit to Surat in early November, had lashed out at the Modi government for “destroying” the textile and diamond industry, both of which employ Patidars in large numbers.
Owing to their large presence here, the Patidars of Varachha are being seen as a test for the larger debate over which way the community would lean in the rest of the state.