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Hardik Patel participates in a rally organized by Patidar community members to celebrate his release from prison, in Surat on Friday. Photo: PTI
Hardik Patel participates in a rally organized by Patidar community members to celebrate his release from prison, in Surat on Friday. Photo: PTI

Will Hardik Patel’s release revive a headache for BJP in Gujarat?

Patidar quota agitation leader Hardik Patel says the community will continue the fight to demand other backward classes (OBC) status

Ahmedabad: Hardik Patel, the face of the Patidar agitation for other backward classes (OBC) status, received a rousing welcome as he walked out of Surat jail on Friday after being granted bail by the Gujarat high court in two cases of sedition and one case of rioting.

Thousands of supporters gathered outside Surat jail, some holding posters that read “Gabbar is back", inspired by the popular Bollywood movie with the same name starring Akshay Kumar.

Patel had been in jail since October when Surat police first arrested him in a sedition case. He reiterated that the Patel community will continue the agitation for OBC status that would entitle it to government job reservations.

“We will continue our fight till we get our rights," Patel told reporters after his release on bail, adding that his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) was open to holding talks with the government.

In an apparent reference to the “56-inch-chest" remark that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made during the 2014 election campaign, Patel said, “I don’t want a good height. I don’t want a well-built body. Nor do I want a 56-inch chest. All I want are rights for my community."

Patel’s group staged a massive show of strength to celebrate his release after nearly 10 months of incarceration. He is looking to make the most of the 48 hours he has before he leaves Gujarat, travelling about 600 kilometers through the state. The Gujarat high court has ordered him to stay out of the state for six months.

His Friday rally would cover several places in Surat city that are dominated by the Patels. His group has also planned a gathering on the outskirts of Surat after which he will go to his home town, Viramgam.

Patel and his supporters are scheduled to visit several places in Gujarat including Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot and Jamnagar. In Rajkot and Jamnagar districts, he will visit two shrines that are revered by the Patel community.

While Patel maintained that his agitation is non-political, veteran Gujjar leader from Rajasthan, Himat Singh Gujjar, dissident Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator Nalin Kotadiya and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Jayant Boski greeted him on his release from prison.

Patel has provided jail authorities an address in Udaipur in Rajasthan where he will stay temporarily. The Gujjars have a reason to support the quota stir—their community has also been seeking reservations.

At a late evening press conference in Surat, Patel said his community will show its strength in the 2017 state elections. Taking on the Gujarat administration for slapping sedition cases on him and his aides, Patel said, “While 14 members of our community became martyr in the agitation, 10 of us faced sedition case. I ask why there are no sedition charges on those supporting terrorism in J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) or those throwing governments out in Uttarakhand or Arunachal Pradesh?"

On whether he would continue the agitation from Udaipur where he will be based for six months, Patel said, “If the country can run from Nagpur, why can’t our agitation be run from Udaipur?"

Kotadiya’s recent meeting with Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal during his visit to Gujarat fuelled speculation that he may defect to AAP.

Kotadiya, also a Patel, said last week that he supported Hardik Patel and was disappointed with the way the state government had refused to grant the community a quota.

AAP leaders Aashutosh, Gulab Singh Yadav and Kanubhai Kalsaria will welcome Patel around midnight in Ahmedabad, the party said in a statement late on Friday.

AAP is looking to contest all 182 seats in the 2017 Gujarat election, and hopes to garner support of the Patel community. During his visit last weekend, Kejriwal spoke in support of Hardik. He said although Patel was put behind bars in a sedition case, no such case has been registered against former Maharashtra minister Eknath Khadse who faces allegations of irregularities in a land deal.

In May 2015, Patel launched PAAS to demand reservations of seats in educational institutes and government jobs. The Leuva and Kadva Patels enjoy no quota benefits as their members are considered to be upper caste and have about 12-14% of the state’s vote bank.

From being a non-entity, Patel became a “quota warrior" of the community with a massive rally that he addressed on 25 August 2015.

More than half-a-million Patel community members participated in the rally, which turned violent. At least a dozen people were killed in police firing while one police constable was also killed in clashes in Surat.

The agitation was a setback to the ruling BJP in Gujarat and chief minister Anandiben Patel as the community has been a strong vote-bank for the party for over two decades now.

The party lost to Congress in the local elections in rural areas and this led to speculations of a change in guard in the state. Many leaders from the BJP alleged that the chief minister had not been able to control the situation that was raised by her own community members and demanded that she be replaced.

“An internal party report earlier this year showed the party losing its popularity in the state in the wake of the ongoing Patidar agitation. We will have to watch closely what Hardik Patel and his community’s next move is," said a senior BJP party leader who did not want to be named.

In a damage control exercise, the Anandiben Patel led government announced a new 10% reservation in government jobs and colleges based on economic criteria.

Although PAAS leaders rubbished the move and called it a “lollipop", their agitation for quotas waned, especially with their leader in jail.

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