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Hardik Patel reportedly wants Congress to publicly commit to ensuring 20 per cent reservation for economically backward classes if it is voted to power

Hardik Patel, the popular leader of the raging Patidar/Patel agitation in Gujarat, has put the Congress party in a piquant situation in the poll-bound state. On Saturday, Patel warned the party that if it didn’t clarify its stand on reservations for the community by November 3 then his supporters would unleash the same chaos at Congress rallies as they recently did at a public meeting of BJP national president Amit Shah in Surat.

Patel, who the Congress has been trying to convince to campaign for its candidates in the upcoming Gujarat Assembly polls in a bid to defeat the BJP which has stayed in power for 22 long years, had recently met Congress general secretary Ashok Gehlot in Ahmedabad, while he had also vehemently refuted rumours of a meeting with the party’s vice president Rahul Gandhi. However, Patel had conceded that he had placed his demands before Gehlot, a fact that the Congress general secretary also confirmed.

However, with Patel now setting a deadline of November 3 for the Congress to come clean on its stand over the demand of the state’s politically influential Patel/Patidar population, the grand old party will need to quickly take a decision on the prickly issue which could make or mar its political fortunes in the state.

So far, Patel had made it clear that while he won’t join the Congress party, he was open to campaigning for the party to ensure the defeat of the BJP, which he has accused of cheating the state’s over 12 per cent Patidar population which holds the key to victory in at least 60 of Gujarat’s 182 assembly constituencies.

Congress sources say Patel wants the party to give a majority chunk of its tickets – between 30 to 40 per cent – to candidates from the Patidar community. He also wants the Congress leadership, preferably Rahul Gandhi, to publicly declare that the party would ensure a 20 per cent reservation in government jobs for economically backward classes (a demand that is likely to mostly help Patidars if it is fulfilled) if it is voted to power riding on the support of his community.

Rahul Gandhi is set to address a series of public meetings across Gujarat between November 1 and 3. This leaves the party with less than a week to discuss the contentious demand with Congress leaders from Gujarat who represent other communities, which unlike the Patidars, have formed the Congress’ vote bank in the state at some or the other point in time in recent years. The Patidar community, however, has traditionally voted for the BJP in Gujarat and its support to the saffron party is seen as the reason for its 22-year-long stint in power in the state. It is only in the past two years that the Patidars, under the banner of Hardik Patel’s Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), have revolted against the BJP over their demand for reservation based on economic backwardness.

Agreeing to Hardik’s demands, especially publicly, may not be an easy choice for the Congress as in doing so the party risks alienating backwards castes, Dalits and adivasis who currently enjoy benefits of reservation and could see such a commitment as one that impinges on their constitutionally mandated right.

Accepting Hardik’s demand could also turn into an electoral nightmare for the Congress as the party has only recently managed to bring popular OBC leader Alpesh Thakore within its fold and is assiduously pursing a similar plan with Jignesh Mewani, the activist who commands mass support among the state’s huge Dalit population. Neither Jignesh Mewani nor Alpesh Thakore is likely to agree to Hardik’s demand for a 20 per cent reservation for economically backward castes, although the duo have so far aligned with Hardik to attack the BJP.

In Gujarat, other backward classes (OBCs) comprise 146 castes and make up around 40 per cent of the state’s population. They have a 27 per cent quota in government jobs and education. The scheduled castes are entitled to a 7 per cent quota while the 15 per cent has been reserved for scheduled tribes. This makes a total of 49 per cent reserved seats in the state which is just under the 50 per cent reservation cap set by the Supreme Court.

How the Congress would manage to add another 20 per cent of reservations without curtailing the quotas allotted to OBCs, SCs and STs is a mystery. Last year, the BJP-ruled state government had given 10 per cent reservation for the poor among non-reserved castes – a move aimed at placating the Patidars – but the Gujarat high court had struck down the provision on the ground that it violated the Supreme Court’s cap of 50 per cent on reservations.

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