Gujarat elections: Congress poised to strike a deal with Hardik Patel

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New Delhi: The Congress party is poised to announce its plans to accommodate the demands of the politically crucial Patel community ahead of Gujarat elections.

The move comes a day after senior Congress leaders, including former Union minister Kapil Sibal, met members of Hardik Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) in Ahmedabad late on Wednesday night, following which the party made a formal offer. According to people who attended the meeting, it has been decided that PAAS members will decide upon the offer among themselves and that a formal stand could be announced as early as next week.

“There are three ways in which such a demand for reservation has usually been addressed by state governments in the past. This includes giving reservation to a community through OBC (other backward classes) reservation, creating a Special Backward Classes (SBC) section or giving it through the economically weaker section category. This came up for a discussion and a formal offer was made,” a person who attended the meeting said requesting anonymity.

According to a senior Congress leader, involved in talks with PAAS, the party is most likely to offer the economically weaker section route to accommodate reservation of Patels. “We are not disturbing the 49% criteria. Instead we are looking at the option of giving reservation to Patels through the economically and educationally backward classes criteria,” the leader added.

The Patel community holds much importance as it comprises 12%-14% of the population spread over at least 50 assembly constituency. Patels were instrumental in bringing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 1995 and this is the first time in more than two decades of BJP being in power that the community is divided in its support to the ruling party because of the reservation issue.

On Thursday, hectic internal meetings of top Congress leaders took place in the national capital even as PAAS members simultaneously met in Gujarat. According to a senior PAAS functionary, the body is “convinced of the political will of Congress” to facilitate reservation for Patels and is looking at the legal validity of such a proposal made by the party.

Being out of power in the state for more than two decades, the Congress is facing one of its toughest electoral battles in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. The support of Patels is, therefore, crucial in expanding the party’s social base ahead of polls which are scheduled for next month.

“With nearly 12% population in the state, Patels hold a lot of significance and unlike the OBC group which is far more splintered, Patels vote en bloc in support of one party or another. If Congress manages to make a dent in this, then it will have an electoral advantage in several assembly constituencies where the margin of victory for BJP was low in the last election,” said Ghanshyam Shah, an Ahmedabad-based political analyst.