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Declaration of support from the Patel Anamat Andolan Samiti chief comes on a day when Congress was on the back-foot for its controversial meme against PM Modi

On a day when the Congress party had been forced to go on the back-foot against the BJP following a controversial meme put out by Youth Congress volunteers on Twitter mocking Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Grand Old Party got a shot in the arm in its Gujarat poll campaign as it secured the support of Patidar leader Hardik Patel for its electoral pitch.

Hardik Patel, the popular leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) who had kept the Congress guessing for weeks over whether he would formally endorse the party’s electoral bid in the state or not, declared on Wednesday that he had “accepted the formula given by the Congress” on providing reservations for Patidar community in government jobs in Gujarat if it is voted to power.

Reservation for the politically influential Patidar community, which comprises around 15 per cent of the Gujarat electorate and holds the key for electoral victory in at least 60 of the state’s 182 assembly constituencies, was a key demand of the PAAS leaders. Hardik Patel, who has had several rounds of discussions – directly and through his representatives – with the Congress leadership in the past few weeks, had demanded that the Congress offer a formula for carving out the quota without disturbing the existing 49 per cent reservation already promised to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes in the state.

On Wednesday, Hardik Patel said: “The Congress has accepted our demand for reservations with a formula that provides for benefits equivalent to OBCs constitutionally, without disturbing the present 49 per cent quota for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs…We are accepting the formula given to us by the Congress party.”

Hardik’s announcement, seen as his clear endorsement of the Congress in the poll-bound state where the party has been out of power for the past 22 years was immediately welcomed by senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal, who had led his party’s discussions with the PAAS leader on the legal aspects of the quota-assurance.

Asserting that a “united fight” by the Congress and PAAS leaders would dethrone the BJP in Gujarat, Sibal told reporters: “We are very happy that a ‘sanjha morcha’ (united front) will now fight against the BJP… We thank him (Hardik) that they (PAAS) have joined us with an ideology to contest the election by coming together… Our target is to win the election and fulfill promises made to the people.”.

The Congress leader, however, refused to divulge details of the ‘formula’ that his party had offered to the Patidar leader on carving out a quota for the community, even as the BJP leadership continued to claim that “any formulation over Patidar reservation offered by the Congress would be legally and constitutionally untenable”.

On his part, Hardik claimed that he along with his PAAS colleagues will have the reservation formula scrutinized by senior lawyers and constitutional experts to confirm its tenability, though he expressed confidence on the probability of the formulation offered by the Congress being legally valid.

Hardik brushed aside allegations by the ruling BJP of him being a “Congress agent” and said: “The Congress has accepted our demands though it is in Opposition and has promised to even include it in its manifesto. In this situation, when the BJP tortured our youth and slapped false cases, including those of sedition, there is nothing wrong in supporting the Congress.”

The PAAS chief added: “Let the BJP call me a Congress agent. I am nobody’s agent, except of the people… The Congress has promised that a survey would be carried out within Patel or any other forward community as per provisions of the OBC Commission and on this basis parameters of economic, social, educational or employment would be used to extend reservation benefits to Patels and other communities that currently do not benefit from the quota system.”

Hardik declared that the Congress had said that if it won the Gujarat polls – due in two phases scheduled for December 9 and 14 with results to be decalred on December 18 – it would pass a proposal for reservations for Patidars under Articles 31-C and 46 of the Constitution.

With many political observers and the BJP leadership claiming that any reservation beyond the existing 49 per cent granted to SC, ST and OBC communities would be a violation of the Supreme Court-mandated cap on quotas, Hardik claimed this argument was not correct and that “there is nothing in the constitution that prohibits quota beyond 49 per cent.”

Hardik said that since 1994, many states, including Gujarat, had given quotas beyond 50 per cent and in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka such reservation had been in existence for the past 15 to 17 years.

With youth leaders like Hardik, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani – politically influential faces of Patidar, OBC Thakore and Dalit communities respectively – directly or tacitly supporting the Congress’ bid for power in poll-bound Gujarat, the Grand Old Party can finally hope to make some incremental electoral gains in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah.

However, whether the declaration of support from these leaders will actually lead a conversation of actual votes of people from their communities in favour of the Congress is something that will be known only on December 18 when the Election Commission declares results for the high-stakes Assembly polls.

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