AHMEDABAD/NEW DELHI: After the night brawl by the supporters of Hardik Patel in Gujarat where they attacked some of the offices of the Congress party, Congress leaders spent the day today trying to whitewash the incident. “Oh this happens, it is just a small issue, it will be resolved,” was the official position of the Congress, although Patel himself made it clear by cancelling the Rajkot rally that he and his Patidar supporters could not be taken for granted.

There has been sufficient ambiguity built into the Hardik Patel-Congress relations that seemed to have encouraged the larger party to take political liberties that has brought about a serious strain in relations on the eve of the Assembly elections.

The first indication of this came two days ago when Hardik Patel at an election rally urged the cheering crowds to question not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi but also Congress president Rahul Gandhi. This was a major departure from his till date anti-BJP positioning and rang sufficient alarm bells in the Congress to make the party rush into declaring a reservation-pact of sorts to be included in the manifesto.

It might be recalled that when relations between the Patidar leader and the Congress were established, the latter had spoken of a reservation pact but lately had stopped speaking of this. A Congress leader from Gujarat told The Citizen at the time, “there are many options that can be discussed, what is the rush.”

The “rush” was demonstrated by Hardik Patel at the rally, and had the Congress party scrambling to announce an agreement on the reservation issue. Patel, whose several aides have been won away by the BJP, is drawing huge crowds but remains under pressure from the Patidar community to ensure their economic welfare as he had promised, and made the basic demand of his initial agitation.

There have been talks between Patel and the Congress about seat adjustments. And while Hardik Patel is too young to contest the Assembly elections, he was reportedly not averse to many of his supporters contesting the current state polls on the Congress ticket. Congress and Patel circles claim that Hardik Patel had asked for 50 seats, agreed to 22, with the Congress not even keeping this commitment now.

The Congress seems to be doing what it tends to always do in dealing with smaller parties. Instead of allocating sufficient seats, it is now trying to keep as many with their own candidates, with Hardik Patel and his supporters not even being consulted about the Patidar community candidates. Patel’s argument is that the decision of the Patidar candidates should be left to him and his group. The Congress counter is that there is no need, with the usual ‘where will he go’ argument being now heard from some of the senior party leaders who have been opposing the alliance on the ground.

Dinesh Bambhania, a key aide of Hardik Patel, is credited with the Surat protest. He has now said that the Patidar leader will announce at the press conference scheduled this evening whether he will support the Congress, or not. The Congress, that always responds best to pressure that it cannot counter, is now reportedly working on some kind of acceptable settlement.

This could have been done before, as some leaders pointed out, but as always the Congress “messed it up”, convinced that one, it is in a good position in Gujarat; and two, Hardik Patel has burnt all bridges with the BJP and hence would be more pliable to classical Congress arm-twisting.

Once again the Congress party seems to have wrongly estimated the youth leaders on whose back it is seeking the votes in these polls, and its own popularity in the field. Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani, as their supporters point out, are young and direct, and will not hesitate to move out of the Congress fold as it were if these “games” continue.

Besides, these ‘games’ might encourage the confused Patidar community to desert Hardik Patel---and hence the Congress---at this crucial stage. The BJP is working actively to embrace them with open arms.