Much like Jats, Yadav, the non-Yadav, Dalit OBCs and the non-Dalit OBCs, Brahmins and various tribal groups have emerged groups of significant ballot power, the one unmistakable poll monolith in Gujarat comprises the Patels. Getting them together under the aegis of a Patel leader, never mind the political party,can be a potential game changer. Little wonder then that Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee Working President Hardik Patel has been eyeing moves to ringfence Khodaldham-based industrialist Naresh Patel.
Political pundits, however, ascribe the possible union to the “Patel Brotherhood” which transcends political affiliations in a highly polarised Gujarat. In the letter reportedly written to Naresh Patel, the Congress leader has espoused the cause of Patel youth, farmers and traders. Patel voters account for 15 percent of the population in the state, 32 percent in the House and 26 percent in the state cabinet. Notable Patels also figure in the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and in Narendra Modi’s cabinet, namely Mansukh Mandaviya and Pursottam Rupala.
So, who is Naresh Patel?
Let’s begin at the beginning. Naresh Patel is the chief of Khodaldham, a Hindu temple complex dedicated to Khodal, a patron deity of Leuva Patel community, located in Kagvad in Rajkot district. The temple was opened in 2017. There have been public meetings where Naresh Patel has been seen in conversation with BJP state chief CR Patil and likewise, the Congress has factored his goodwill in any move in the area. Though not directly active in politics, Naresh Patel’s strength of social credibility has been influencing the politics of Gujarat for the last two decades. Notably, it was no ordinary plea from a commoner when he mediated between the Patidar leader and the government to withdraw cases mounted during the agitation. Similarly, in the 2017 Assembly elections, three of his close aides were given tickets by the Congress, while his son Shivraj Patel campaigned for the Congress.
Coincidently or perhaps calculatingly, shortly after his call that the chief minister of Gujarat should be a Patel, the incumbent Vijay Rupani was replaced by Bhupendra Patel. In recent times, Bharat Singh Solanki and CR Patil have also met Naresh Patel in closed door meetings. Then, there was news of AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal having met this power-lord. In short, there is no denying Naresh Patel’s stronghold and now that he has indicated a political entry, Hardik Patel’s letter was indeed well-timed.
What did the letter say?
The letter, reportedly, noted the absence of a strong Patel leader, because of which generations of the enterprising community have suffered. It went on to elaborate the “gross injustices” under 30 years of BJP rule and how communal hatred has been spread at the cost of progressive ideas and ventures. The fact that the Patidars are still languishing is the biggest pointer towards their grim fate, the letter observed. Written as a personal plea from “Hardik Patel,” who took upon himself the role to fight for the community in 2015, the note urges Naresh Patel about to think his political potential in the upliftment of the entire community.
So, what was Naresh Patel’s reply?
When asked about the letter, the Khodaldham chief replied: “I have not received any letter yet. I get such invitations from every party and will take an appropriate decision at the right time. Currently, talks are on with the chief minister to withdraw the cases registered during the agitation against many Patel youths. I will discuss Hardik’s open letter with him. However, no political decision will be taken from the Khodaldham platform. Any political decision will be a personal choice.”
Interestingly, the Patidar Reservation Andolan Committee started disintegrating after the 2017 Assembly elections. Hardik Patel, who came out of the movement, became the working chief of Congress while Gopal Italia became the state chief of AAP and Reshma Patel joined the NCP. The only non-political survivor, Alpesh Kathiria, when contacted stated: “Whatever party Naresh Patel will join, we will support him.”
The PRC has decided to re-start the movement on March 13. Alongside, Congress MLA from Saurashtra, Lalit Kagathara, has openly declared that “If Naresh Bhai joins the Congress, I will give up the reserved Assembly seat for him.”
The dynamics are warming up. Congress has included MLA and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, OBC leader and former MP Jagdish Thakor and tribal leader Sukhram Rathwa as leader of Opposition. All that is left is a veteran Patidar face.