In March it will be two years since Hardik Patel, 27, joined the Congress party in presence of its then president Rahul Gandhi. Facing 34 criminal cases related to the quota agitation he launched under the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) he founded, of which 17 pertain to violation of prohibitory orders and two to sedition, in 2018 Patel was convicted for two years in a case of rioting and remains on bail, barred from entering Mehsana district and from stepping outside of Gujarat. None of this has stopped Patel from campaigning on his own for the local panchayat elections and municipality elections, due on February 28.
On the sidelines of a kisan mahapanchayat in Ravapar of Morbi district, he spoke to Leena Misra and Parimal Dabhi on his role in the Congress, association with the PAAS, and plans to contest election in the future. Excerpts
What is the difference between Hardik Patel of 2015 and 2021?
Back in 2019 I was without a care for anyone and aggressive, as it was one movement, only talking about reservation. Now it is not about the community but about health, education, employment and of the people, of making the party win, of strengthening the candidate and the Congress. But there is no other change, I do the same things. Back then without a position, designation we brought success to the movement. Today, I have a position, and with a party, my responsibility is much bigger and I have to bring more success.
What changes have come about in you after joining the Congress?
I have thoroughly assimilated ideology of the Congress. When I went to jail just before the lockdown, I took with me Jawaharlal Nehru’s book (Discovery of India), which the former PM wrote from jail, an autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi and a book on Sardar Patel by (VP) Menon and read them. So, I have understood the ideology of the Congress very well and how to live with it.
Why can’t you contest elections?
I am facing a two-year conviction. If you see my political career over the last five years, you will find it awkward. For the last five years, I have not gone to Mehsana district. In the sedition case, the Gujarat High Court sent me out of Gujarat and, in the same case, when I did not appear in the sessions court, they sent me to jail. When I got bail, it was with the condition that I could not go out of the state.
Politically, this is a harassment, as none of the cases have been withdrawn against me.
When I was 24 years old and was preparing for my sister’s wedding in 2017, (West Bengal CM) Mamata (Banerjee) didi called me and said, ‘Hardik, I want to send you to the Rajya Sabha’. I told her this is not my age. From that day on my temptation for a political position went away.
You said that till 2014 you voted for BJP
Before 1985, all the Patidars were with the Congress. Till 2007, Patels were aggressively with the BJP. In 2007, when Gordhanbhai (Zadafia) refused to take up ministership, the Patels got divided. Sixty per cent Patidars joined with the Congress and 40 per cent stayed with the BJP. Because they removed Keshubhai Patel as CM, our family stayed away from the BJP.
Is it true that your father was associated with Anandi Patel?
Yes. When in 1995-96, Anandiben contested from Mandal (constituency), my father had a business of submersible pumps for fields. He would roam around the villages and everyone knew him. Some villages in Mandal would not even allow the BJP to enter these villages. We had a Commando Jeep. Anandiben came to my father seeking help to gain entry into these villages. But my father was never with the BJP nor did he ever fight elections for BJP.
What is your equation with PAAS?
Ten or 15 days before I joined Congress in 2019, I appointed Alpesh Katheriya (of Surat) the PAAS convenor. Before that 10 per cent reservation had been announced for the poor and middle class. My andolan was limited to this demand.
Today, I am a member of PAAS. But PAAS was limited to the movement for quota, which is no longer there. So, the organisation naturally should have been disbanded but our people insisted on keeping PAAS till the martyred youths got justice. It is natural then that today when I am with the organisation it can have demands of me. PAAS sought a ticket from me for Dharmik Malaviya, which I got cleared. But there were some local issues, and because I am only a working president (of the state Congress), I don’t have a mandate. I was not there in a single screening (for tickets), nobody asked me during the ticket distribution. So, I said nothing.
Do you think as a working president you should have been involved?
What is the party guideline, what is the power I don’t know. As the working president you should have told us that your team is strong in Surat, in Saurashtra. We have come from a movement. I have toured 6,000 villages of Gujarat and I know the situation on the ground. In Surat, the biggest mistake is of our Pradesh (state) leaders. Had they asked me what is to be done, I would have given them the right advice.
They did not ask you?
Do you give credit for 2015 results in Surat to PAAS?
In 2015. the entire results in Gujarat, be it of the taluka, district or nagarpalika, mahanagarpalika, was only because of the agitation and that the party will have to accept. I tell the party leaders time and again that you need to understand the people who have come from the agitation because we are touring. Even today, my tours are constantly on. Not a single of my tours have been decided by the PCC (Pradesh Congress Committee) still I am on my toes, because I want to strengthen the party, whether someone else does or not. They (Congress leaders) might be wanting to pull me down, push me and bring me down. Let them, I will stand up again. Because in the agitation, the BJP would bring me down and I would rise up. Many times, I tell the party, that when I joined the Congress, I thought Congress will utilize me. Even there I feel that my Pradesh high command, the state in-charge (prabhari), has failed. Organise my meetings, I am ready to do 25 meetings a day. You tell me ‘from today you have to do a 500 km padyatra’, assign me something, I tell the party again and again, give me some work. But utilise me at least in areas where I have a presence, where I have my team, where I have a network.
A rally by party’s state chief Amit Chavda got cancelled on Feb 19. Do you think you should have gone instead?
They asked me if I would go just a day before. But I had already programmes lined up seven days in advance. Had they told me in the beginning of the election that you have to do 25 rallies in Surat, this would not have been the result in Surat. I am not just talking about Surat, also about the other municipal corporations. See, the Congress will have to do atmamanthan (introspection) and openly speak up where they failed, or were weak. We made a theme song (for campaigning), how many people heard it? You put out the best manifesto in last 25 years but failed to take it to the people. Which leader spoke of the manifesto? See, the 6.5 crore people of Gujarat don’t accept BJP whether anyone believes or not.
You were saying people are trying to bring you down…
You (Congress leaders) are not organising any of my events. Why are you not doing it?
You think this is intentional?
Possible. I am doing so many meetings, such huge crowds come to my meetings, then why don’t you organise my meetings? If you are the party’s (working) president and you are a strong person, you tell me go do 10 rallies. Why are you (Congress leaders) not doing this for me?
So, none of the campaigns for the civic polls were fixed by the party?
Not a single one in the last 10 days.
How many sabhas have you held?
27 (in last 10 days).
What could be the reason? Have you taken this issue to your national leadership?
I don’t do this constant complaining or making representations. I don’t believe in complaining, I believe in proving myself and I am doing it my way. Today, I have toured Morbi, Rajkot and Ahmedabad districts, I have to prove to myself whether I am carrying out the responsibility given to me by Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi, irrespective of whether I have the power to take decisions or not.
Did you ever think of quitting the Congress?
Do you regret joining it?
Not one bit. I have joined the Congress, whose leadership comprised of Sardar, (Mahatma) Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. That is clear. The party that was led by Subhash Chandra (Bose), Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, that is the party I have joined.
What is the reason for AAP winning in Surat and AIMIM in Ahmedabad?
One of the biggest reasons is the low voter turnout in the municipal corporation… If the voting increases, we can believe that it has increased in support of the party in power. It is not that the decrease in voting means (people) are not in support of the opposition. It means people do not like the party in power… (With) the result of AAP in Surat and Rajkot, I clearly believe that people of Gujarat do not like the BJP, but at the same they do not vote for Congress because it is not aggressive.
AAP was aggressively doing programmes in Surat for 2-3 months and people began to believe that this party can put our issues forth. And the fight over tickets that happened, people thought this is how the Congress is. In Rajkot, AAP got second highest vote share, this is because for the last 2-3 months, the party was working as an aggressive opposition in Rajkot.
Also, there is a theory being circulated that Congress is a party of Muslims and Dalits, which is a part of the BJP strategy, because of which Muslims have also started thinking that whatever people might say, we are not getting anything from the Congress, (Asaduddin) Owaisi says the same thing. He only speaks against the Congress, doesn’t speak against BJP.
If you want to counter all these, only come out on the streets and make your heads bloodied, fight against the people in power, be bathed in blood. Not by telling the SP (superintendent of police), ‘we will walk that much then you can detain us’. No. Let the SP do whatever he wants, if you have to march to the governor’s place, then march! Be aggressive. For whom are we doing this? for the people. If we do good work for the people, they will vote for us. If you do seva (service) you will get meva (fruit).
Is there a void felt of Ahmed Patel?
He played a very important role in the country’s political network, he was seen as close to Madam Sonia, he saw several covert operations through. One thing is clear that the 219 seat that were won (by BJP) uncontested were by mismanagement. There is no leader in the state who would now call (a distressed candidate) and say – why do you worry? And if the candidate said he had no money to fight the elections against the powerful BJP and so he was withdrawing, Ahmedbhai would say, ‘Don’t worry, I will tell a few leaders to help you out’. These he would tackle, handle the crisis.
Will you contest elections after this two-year conviction period is over?
As a working president, if the party wants to utilise me throughout the state for campaigning in the 2022 (Assembly) elections, then I don’t want to fight the elections. We want to form the government. But if you don’t want to utilise me, make me sweat, then tell me, I will fight an election. I have not come here to do electoral politics. I have come here to form a government. Once that is done everything else will follow.
You are not as active on social media as 2015. Why?
The atmosphere from 2015 to 2017 was spontaneous. For instance, if I had a meeting in Morbi, I would ask someone to arrange for a Facebook live, people would do it. But this is a party event. The party has a financial crisis. It costs Rs 7,000 to have one camera to do a Facebook live. We are not able to give money to our candidates. Our candidates spend on their own. But our social media is still great. If I have the resources and the cooperation, I can drive the BJP crazy. I had nothing (in 2015) and yet had driven people in power crazy.
That fire Hardik Patel had before, seems missing…
Party is a different ball game.
Is that restricting you?
Is it the Congress or the cases against you?
If I were afraid of the cases why would I join the Congress? I would have gone and sat in the BJP.
The place where I come from, the BJP would not be able to defeat me, they would take me in as minister.
Has there been an offer?
What is your equation with the party leadership?
I get along with everyone — Bharatsinhbhai (Solanki, former union minister), Amitbhai (Chavda, GPCC chief), Pareshbhai (Dhanani, leader of opposition), Siddarthbhai (Patel, former PCC chief), Arjunbhai (Modhwadia, ex-PCC chief), and Shaktibhai (Shaktisinh Gohil, RS MP). Whether they get along with me or not that I don’t know.
Do you think they feel insecure?
Why feel insecure? If in 2022 we form the government, will they make me chief minister? You will be the chief minister. But first form the government.
What if you were the Congress president today?
I would tour the whole state. I would know the problem of each and every village. My spokesperson, if he goes to a (media) debate on unemployment he should have the data on hand. If as a state party president, I do not know the entire nature of Gujarat – the issues of every region – I should not be president. First, I should work to become a state leader, then become the face (of the party).
Why is the youth not connecting to the Congress?
Gujarat has three kinds of youth. If you sit in the Ahmedabad airport for an hour you will see the Gujarat youth flying to Canada and Australia to study. He might settle down there. The other is the one in the villages, who is only interested in a decent education and a government job. The third is the one who is doing his father’s business, who does not care for the world.
I believe that (for them) the entire election is like the election of the President (American system). They only look at two people when voting, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Gujarat or India’s youth does not look at who is the local candidate because he has no understanding of politics. Even our smallest elections are a choice between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.