AHMEDABAD, Gujarat — From sedition charges and a nine-month jail term, to a sex CD controversy, Hardik Patel has had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at him in the two years since he challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in their home state of Gujarat. It's sometimes easy to forget that the man who led the rallying cry in the Patidar movement is only 24-years-old.
In the aftermath of the Bharatiya Janata's Party's sixth straight win in the state, the leader from the land-owning Patel community has become somewhat of a political score board. Many people measure his success against the 16 seats that BJP lost and the 19 seats that the Congress Party gained.
That is, in Hardik's mind, a narrow view of him and the youth movement in Gujarat which he believes is only going to get stronger in the run up to the 2019 national election.
When I met him at his apartment in the upscale locality of Shilaj in Ahmedabad earlier this week, the Patidar leader kicked off our conversation by saying, "Abhi to kaam shooro hua hai." (Our work has just started).
"My biggest achievement is the public outrage which we have generated," said Hardik. "That is something that will not go away easily and it is something we will continue to build on."
When I asked him if he was disappointed that the BJP had prevailed again, he said, "What does a 24-year-old man do in this country? He dates his girlfriend, goes to college or tries to get a job with a good salary. What do I do? I'm fighting injustice. I'm doing something different. I'm still young and this a big thing for me to do."
I'm fighting injustice. I'm doing something different. I'm still young and this a big thing for me to do.
It was in the summer of 2015 that the commerce graduate, whose father runs a business selling immersible pumps, became the face of a struggling section of young Patels. His fiery speeches made amidst violent protests for quota benefits transformed him into an overnight sensation in the country.
Not only did he channel anger over unemployment and agrarian distress against the BJP government, the youth leader stripped away Modi's larger than life image in a state where the prime minister has commanded only reverence for a long time.
It wasn't long before two other leaders, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor, faces of the Dalit community and Other Backward Classes (OBC) respectively, rose up in Gujarat. In the run up to the state polls, the three youth leaders joined forces against the BJP government, calling out the ruling party on a host of issues such as unemployment, privatization of education and basic human rights.
Even after he was jailed for nine months and banished from the state for six months as a condition for his release, Hardik did not fade away. During the election campaign in 2017, the youth leader attracted crowds that rivaled the throngs which showed up for Modi's rallies.
While Hardik is in his element in public rallies, the 24-year-old admits that he is a tough subject to interview. I found him to be somewhat indifferent, somewhat engaged but never humourless. When I called him out on his pithy responses, Hardik chuckled. "I normally respond with a few sentences but I do convey everything important," he said.
In fact, early on in the interview, Hardik said he doesn't like journalists, preferring to communicate directly with his followers on social media. "I like journalism but I don't like journalists. A lot of journalists just come to show off. There are others who come with questions that their bosses have asked them to send," he said.
I like journalism but I don't like journalists.
After a few seconds of awkward silence, we soldiered on.
Hardik was rarely emotive during our conversation, but the youth leader did let on that being incarcerated and having to appear in court again and again had taken its toll. "That is the most difficult bit. I think of myself as a freedom fighter and jail is the second home of a freedom fighter," he said.
I think of myself as a freedom fighter and jail is the second home of a freedom fighter.
Looking Towards 2019
For Hardik, the next milestone is the 2019 national election.
The youth leader is unfazed by BJP's winning spree. After its recent victories in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, the Hindu nationalist party controls an unprecedented 19 out of 29 states.
"When you have a dadar (ring worm) and you put medicine on it, it doesn't go away immediately. You have to put medicine on it for a few days, perhaps a week, before it starts going away, little by little. The BJP is a like a dadar. This time, the medicine brought them down from 119 to 99 seats. Next time, we're going to put more medicine and wipe them out in 2019," he said.
For the first time since it came to power in 1995, the BJP has won less than 100 seats in the state election. The BJP won by seven seats more than the 92 seats required to get a majority, with as many as 16 seats having been won by a margin of 3000 votes or less. In Saurashtra-Kutch, the epicenter of the Patidar agitation, the BJP won 23 of 54 seats from the region, with the Congress taking 30. In 2012, the BJP had won 35 out of 54 seats in the region.
Whether Hardik remains a voice of the Patidar community or broadens his support base remains to be seen, but the youth leader told me that he is planning to attack Modi on every front.
"Our movement is coming back from January 1 (2018). The fight will continue. I can't tell you the details because a freedom fighter never gives away his strategy."
Our movement is coming back from January 1. The fight will continue.
Even though he refused to divulge the details of his plan, Hardik said that two fold strategy would involve mobilizing farmers who are already angry about the support prices for crops as well as reaching out to young women and men who are stuck in an unemployment rut.
This time around, however, Hardik plans to "redouble" his efforts in reaching out to the urban youth. The election results showed that while the Congress made significant inroads in rural areas, the urban voters almost unanimously voted for the BJP.
He said his one regret is not having been able to change the minds of the urban youth. "There are a few things that I would have done differently like doing twice as much to get the urban youth riled up. We need to make them understand their rights, circumstances and problems," he said.
There are a few things that I would have done differently like doing twice as much to get the urban youth riled up.
"I'm not a test tube baby"
There was a moment during the Gujarat election when it seemed that his rivals had bested Hardik by releasing two sex CDs purportedly showing him. At the time, Hardik said the CDs were morphed and accused the BJP of playing "dirty politics."
Just a decade earlier, Sanjay Joshi, a rising BJP leader in Gujarat, had his political career cut short after sex CDs allegedly showing him were made public. It made no difference that Joshi was a 39-year-old bachelor at the time or that the CDs were later found to be doctored.
In Hardik Patel's era, however, the sex CDs have proven to be nothing more than a damp squib. When I asked if the CDs had rattled him, the youth leader responded with another question: "Are you a test tube baby."
The 24-year-old laughed as I took a minute to process his question and then explained himself.
"I'm certainly not a test tube baby. I think that only one in a thousand is a test tube baby. Otherwise, we are all born the way nature intended. This goes on in every house. There is nothing wrong with it. That is why it didn't bother me," he said.
Hardik believes that he belongs to a political generation that no longer cringes at sex, but what he deeply minded was the invasion of his privacy.
"The world has changed. I can talk openly talk about such things. There are no virgins even at the ages of 16 or 17. But my privacy was violated and that is wrong," he said. "There can be no democracy without respect for privacy."
There can be no democracy without respect for privacy.
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