AHMEDABAD/NEW DELHI: There is no doubt about it. Patidar leader Hardik Patel is going strong, attracting the crowds, and moving through villages with his chowk pe charcha. At Morbi this morning he addressed a huge gathering of farmers, just 30 km away from a rally organised for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And perhaps the contrast between the two was best highlighted at this Patidar stronghold.

Hardik Patel is earnest, fresh and young, although having matured far beyond his 24 years in both speech and attitude. PM Modi seemed to be old wine in an old and un-corked bottle, with the same gestures, the same phrases, and a slightly stuck “look at the Congress dynasty” record. The distance between him and the crowd remained as per security prohibitions, while Hardik Patel moved from the larger gathering to a more intimate interaction with Morbi villagers soon after.

As for the crowds, difficult to compare as one was organised by the ruling party that has pulled out all the plugs after not-so-successful meetings over the weekend, and the other by a young leader without the infrastructure. And yet the crowd was huge, and the people were responsive with Hardik Patel focusing more on the issue of reservation, unemployment and the need to vote out the BJP in these elections.

Morbi is a hub of ceramic-tile makers, with a strong Patidar community. It was also the centre of Hardik Patel’s agitation against the BJP, and now reflective of the change in his persona after being jailed, and then sent to Rajasthan in exile. He does not make big promises, but seeks to expose the politics of the BJP. He has faced the brunt with his key aides being weaned away in the middle of the campaign, and a sex video being released.He confronts these issues directly, speaks his mind, and interestingly seems to be overcoming what at times seemed like unsurmountable obstacles.

After he lost two key aides to the BJP he said at a meeting, “Two days ago, I became a kankhajura, I lost two legs… but I am standing… what can I do? People feel that Amit Shah knows Chanakya neeti (so) he broke my back. But I am telling you, the elections are approaching. When you stand in the queue at the polling booth, just recall that 14 families (of Patidar youths, who were killed) haven’t lit a lamp in two years. Remember those women who were inflicted with injuries, remember the bullets they pumped into our youths… not a single family of the (Patidar) martyrs has received the promised compensation; not a single police officer has been suspended.”

An indication of his sustained popularity is the failure of the so called sex video to become an issue in these polls. As even a BJP leader admitted, “that video has not worked” and in fact, the BJP was placed on the defensive by the volley of criticism. The party distanced itself from the CD and profusely denied having any connection to the rather base effort to discredit Hardik Patel.

On his part the Patidar leader was only momentarily distracted, and moved on with his energetic campaign that has taken him through large rallies, chowk meetings, small group interactions exposing the BJP and the state government, and insisting that the people vote them out. Hardik Patel, unlike PM Modi, has been addressing press conferences as well with an easy relationship with the media.

PM Modi, on the other hand, has been focusing personally as well on the Nehru-Gandhi family and perhaps hit a new low today at Morbi when he grabbed his nose, to insist that this is what late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had done when she visited the region to block out the stench. She covered her nose with a handkerchief, the Prime Minister said.

Significantly, Hardik Patel has been consistent in warning his supporters against attempts to communalise the elections, maintaining that this would be the BJP effort and they should not fall prey to tactics calculated to shift attention from economic issues and development.

Despite a whisper-campaign on the ground that the Congress would bring back the minorities into the power equations, Hardik Patel has been categorical on this issue with, “these are the people, who have got power by committing countless murders… The ones who caused 2002 (communal riots) are in Delhi now… and more than 147 Patels are languishing in jails (in riot cases). These people promised to help them, but no one has got even a money order of Rs 200 for these years. They have been forgotten. There are innocent Muslims also who are in jails. As elections approach, these people will fan communal discord. Don’t fall into their trap. They can kill me too, they could have killed me… but they cannot kill you (a united community)… So, we must pledge that despite all that has happened –Yes, Vikas has gone mad; Yes, they took away my leaders, but no problem– we will overthrow them.”