Our political fortunes do not depend on any individual joining a party: Congress
Congress had bet big on overtures made by industrialist Naresh Patel, an influential leader of the Leuva Patel sub-caste of the Patidar community. However, Thursday after Patel announced his decision not to enter politicsthe party was quick to react that its political fortunes did not rest on whether an individual “X or Y” joined the party and expressed confidence that it would win 125 of 182 seats, ending the reign of 25 years of Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat.
Patel, chairman of Shree Khodaldham Trust (SKT), a religious organization in Leuva Patels, announced on December 6, 2021 that he would take a political plunge if his community allowed him to. After the announcement, various leaders including Gujarat BJP leader CR Paatil, Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee Chairman Jagdish Thakor, AICC General Secretary in charge of Gujarat, Raghu Sharma and local party leaders Aam Aadmi (AAP) held several meetings with Patel.
Congress was the most aggressive party with a range of leaders including former GPCC chairman Bharatsinh Solanki meeting Patel. Patel also hosted Sharma, Thakor and other Congress leaders at his Rajkot farm on May 19 and the AICC general secretary had described the meeting as “positive”.
Thakor, who claims to have met Patel twice in the past few months, told The Indian Express: ‘I asked Nareshbhai why he wanted to join politics when he was doing well in business and commanding respect for his community. He replied that the tyrannical regime prevailing in the country cannot be tolerated and that he wanted to play politics.
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Patel even admitted he was consulting with polling strategist Prashant Kishor and allegedly meeting with senior congressional leaders. While Thakor maintains that Naresh Patel did not put any preconditions on his joining Congress, senior sources claim that Congress refused to agree to certain conditions.
“Patel emphasized that he wanted to serve the people in the real sense…His demand was that he be allowed to make all important decisions regarding the upcoming assembly elections and in return he would give everything to overthrow the BJP. However, the senior Congress leaders of Gujarat were the first to oppose such a proposal. This left Patel with no other option… his ideological beliefs wouldn’t make him comfortable in other outfits,” a source said.
The 56-year-old industrialist from Rajkot mobilized Leuva Patels, who dominates 20 of the 48 assembly constituencies in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat along with a few others in southern Gujarat, around the Khodaldham temple project over the course of the last decade. Leuva and Kadva Patels, the other main sub-caste group of the Patidar community, together form the largest organized group of voters in Gujarat and the community has been considered staunch supporters of the BJP since the mid-1980s.
Congress has been out of power in Gujarat for two and a half decades and MPs and Patidar party leaders have aggressively persuaded to ease Patel into the party to boost chances of winning Assembly elections this year .
On Thursday, Patel said the idea of joining politics had crossed his mind while reading about freedom fighters during the Covid-19 pandemic. “I deeply read Sardar saheb (Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel) and other freedom fighters and felt that one can also serve people by joining politics,” Patel said.
Citing a poll, Patel said elders in his community were against his idea even though 80% of young people and 50% of women wanted him to join politics. “I was sensitive to the concerns of community elders… Therefore, I am not joining politics at this time,” Patel said, adding that Khodaldham would set up an academy to teach politics.
Congress is still reeling from the decision of Hardik Patel, who led the Patidar quota movement in the state and scared the BJP in the 2017 Assembly elections, to join the BJP. “But we have good Patidar leaders, including Siddharth Patel (former GPCC chairman), Harshad Ribadiya, Lalit Vasoya, Lalit Kagathara and Kirit Patel,” a Congress leader said.
“Nareshbhai is completely free to make his own decisions and I respect his decision,” the GPCC chairman said, adding, “If he had joined the Congress, the party would definitely have benefited…Sonama sugandh bhali hot (It would have added from perfume to gold). Congress is gearing up to win 125 seats in the next Assembly election and is not sitting idly by thinking that we can only win the election if ‘X’ or ‘Y’ joins the party.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed at least half a dozen events organized by the Patidar community over the past six months in a bid to reconnect sections influenced by the anti-BJP tone of the quota agitation. The Saffron Party also replaced Vijay Rupani, a Jain, with Bhupendra Patel, a Patidar, as chief minister in September 2021.