AHMEDABAD/NEW DELHI: Patidar quota stir leader Hardik Patel today pledged his support to the Congress for the Gujarat Assembly elections, in a major fillip to the party's bid to sew up a new caste combination to wrest the state from the BJP after being out of power for 22 years.
The 24-year-old Patel, who was playing cat and mouse game with the Congress for the last few weeks, declared that his Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) will back the main opposition party after the latter accepted its demand for reservation for the Patel community.
Hardik, who is not eligible for contesting elections due to his young age, said the Congress also assured the PAAS that it would include its promise of reservation for the Patidars in the party manifesto.
The young quota agitation spearhead, who led violent protests in support of the demand that left several people dead in police action, said the promised quota would go beyond the 50 per cent cap set by the Supreme Court for the Scheduled Castes, Schedule Tribes and OBCs.
With Hardik extending his support to the Congress, the party has been able to rope in three young caste group leaders in the state whose emergence on Gujarat's political firmament had roots in agitations.
Earlier OBC leader Alpesh Thakor of the Gujarat Kshatriya-Thakor Sena had joined the Congress. The 39-year-old Thakor is known for his campaign against liquor in the dry state, and is believed to wield influence among youth belonging to backward classes.
Jignesh Mewani, a lawyer-activist who shot into prominence after organising a string of protests against the Una incident where Dalits skinning a dead cow were flogged on the suspicion of slaughtering it, has also indicated his support to the Congress.
Mewani, 37, had met Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Surat recently. Though the Dalit leader did not explicitly commit that he would campaign for the Congress, he said he would do everything possible to prevent the BJP from coming to power in Gujarat.
"My fight in Gujarat is against the BJP and that is why we will directly or indirectly support Congress (in the elections) as it has accepted our demand for reservation," Hardik told reporters in Ahmedabad.
Under the proposal, the influential Patels, traditional voters of the BJP, would get a reservation in government jobs and educational institutions beyond the 49 per cent quotas for the SC, ST and OBCs.
Referring to the Supreme Court's cap of 50 per cent on reservation, he said it was just a "suggestion". "In our Constitution, there is no mention of 50 per cent cap on reservation. I am of the firm opinion that reservation can be given over 50 per cent," Hardik said.
The Patel leader said there were no differences with the Congress over seat-sharing. "We had not demanded any seats, but we had asked the Congress to put up candidates of our community who have a strong character," he said.
He said PAAS members who had already filed nominations ceased to be members of the outfit.
Reacting to the development, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the "Congress-Hardik club" is one of mutual deception. "The law of the land is very clear and that is laid down by the Supreme Court and only last week in the Rajasthan case it has been reaffirmed that the 50 per cent cap cannot be increased."
Hitting out at Hardik Patel for declaring support to Congress, Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel said the formula of reservation above the cap set by Supreme Court was something "offered by fools and also accepted by fools."
"Though it is very much clear that reservation quota cannot go beyond 50 per cent in any situation, Hardik is trying to misguide the Patidar community with the formula offered by the Congress. In my opinion, this formula of reservation is a big joke," Patel told reporters in Ahmedabad.
Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal thanked Hardik Patel for declaring his support to the party after it accepted the Patidar community's quota demand, and said their united fight would ensure that the BJP was dethroned.
Sibal, however, held his cards close to the chest when asked about the details of the formula the Congress and the Patel-led PAAS had worked out, adding the related issues would be decided later.
"We are very happy that a 'sanjha morcha' (united front) will now fight against the BJP... We thank him that they (PAAS) have joined us with an ideology to contest the election by coming together... Our target is to win the election and fulfil promises made to the people," Sibal told reporters in New Delhi.