For over 22 years, the Patel community of Saurashtra and in other parts of Gujarat has faithfully voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), even when Patel strongman and former State Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel rebelled against the party and floated his own party, the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP). The large crowds now being drawn by Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel has again focussed attention on this community, and whether it will, finally, desert the BJP in toto, in parts, or not at all.
The composition of the crowd at Hardik Patel’s rallies shows that it is mostly made up of youngsters, leading to the surmise that while the older Patels, who still have some memory of the Congress’ Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi Muslim (KHAM) combination that kept Patidars out of the system, may stick to the BJP, youngsters may choose the Congress.
In such a scenario, according to psephologist Abhay Kumar, the role of OBCs (Other Backward Class) other than Kshatriyas (who are a Congress base) becomes crucial. “Ordinarily, it has been found that once the sell by date of a particular combination is over, political parties find it difficult to attract new voters. Like in the case of both Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Muslim-Yadav combination can only go so far. Same case exists with the Congress and KHAM, so a question mark over whether Patidars will vote en bloc for a party that institutionalised KHAM is still moot. But even if there is a dent in the Patel vote in favour of the Congress, the OBCs, specifically the Kolis who comprise, along with Thakores [earlier counted as same in the 1931 Census], around 22%-24% of voters, and become crucial ,” he said.
Extrapolating on the 1931 Census, the OBCs, excluding Muslim OBCs, comprise 35.6% of the total population, with the Koli-Thakore block the largest, followed by artisan castes at 6.1%; Bharwad (Gadaria) at 2%; and other middle castes at 3.3%.
Kolis form the deciding vote in Bhavnagar district, and several seats in Saurashtra in and around Rajkot — including Chief Minister Vijay Rupani’s seat of Rajkot West and Dhoraji, from where PAAS leader Lalit Vasoya is fighting — and have a presence across the State.
In fact, in Dhoraji, Kolis outnumber Kadva Patels, whose youth are seen as the more ardent Hardik Patel supporters. For a population of 70,000 Kadva Patel voters, Kolis clock an impressive 82,000 voters in that seat.
The BJP is fairly mindful of this potential of OBC voters to play kingmaker in several seats. The party’s campaign has emphasised this point in the context of the OBC Bill, and the way the Opposition blocked it in Parliament, as well as the way non-Yadav OBCs had voted for the BJP in States like Uttar Pradesh. “Alpesh Thakore joining the Congress is no threat as Thakores are Kashatriyas and have always voted the Congress. The other OBCs are, however, pretty much open to wooing,” said a senior strategist of the party.