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September 1, 1999


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The Rediff Election Special/P Rajendran

Poll evokes little enthusiasm in Valsad

"Maniklal Chowdhury will win with over 1 lakh [100,000] votes," Ramanbhai, a Bharatiya Janata Party activist in Vapi, is emphatic. He has the confidence of one absolutely uncertain of what lies ahead.

Ramanbhai is one of three persons splayed over a BJP office in Vapi town. The only places in the city where election banners are visible are around the party offices. BJP district chief Govindbhai also asserts that his party will win, but with far less vehemence.

Things are no better in the Congress office we visit, where three men are seated on mats. Either electioneering hasn't picked up or the party workers are just too exhausted. Three elections in two years do have their effect on one's enthusiasm.

"People outside [the parties] haven't a clue about the contestants. They will distribute the pamphlets sometime," says Jamir Merchant who believes the Congress stands a chance this time.

Merchant has nothing against the BJP, oh no. "It will be a good thing if instead of coalitions there is a stable government," he says.

He doesn't fear communal flare-ups either. "That never happens hear," he says. "Surat, Ahmedabad, yes. Vapi? No," he insists.

Things are as quiet at Valsad. The smoky little city goes about its business as usual. Valsad district Congress vice-president Dinesh Soni assures us that the party's candidate, Uttam Patel, will beat Maniklal Chowdhury by at least 50,000 votes.

"Uttambhai wasn't really beaten the last two times," argues Soni, nodding heavily. He pauses significantly. The earlier debacles that led to Chowdhury becoming the local MP were the result of bogus voting, he enlightens us, nodding some more.

Dineshbhai is seated behind the counter of his lassi shop, on the station road. A woman comes in whom he ignores, for some time at least. He later tells us she is the candidate's daughter-in-law.

Dineshbhai cites the case of the last election when polls to the Lok Sabha and state assembly were held simultaneously. "Given two sheets -- for the Lok Sabha and the assembly elections -- many Adivasis put the sheet for the Lok Sabha in blank," he explains. But those voting for Maniklal made no such errors. As a result, Uttambhai suffered.

But at least one BJP man inadvertently admitted things were rather close.

The road to the Dangs district is picturesque. You have to watch how you drive; you could run over a snake or two. And the driver, Raju Parekh, assures you that the snake's mate will return to exact vengeance.

The River Ambika runs along with you, sometimes feinting in your direction, sometimes darting under a bridge and emerging from the other side to continue to follow the road. The low-hanging clouds drift over you and the gossamer webs hanging on the trees gleam with dew, quivering every time the arachnid moves.

Ahwa, the district HQ, is a small place. But it houses, besides the usual offices associated with such a place, AIR and Doordarshan kendras.

The Christians in the 152,000 population of the Dangs number about 25,000. But though they make up a minority, their fate could have an impact on how the minorities in other parts of the state vote.

But the violence of December 5 last year is only a memory now, claim local BJP officials. "If two brothers fight, why should the administration interfere," challenges Kamlaben Madhukharbhai Goel, former district president.

Janubhai of the Hindu Jagran Manch, who was alleged to be one of the leaders of the violence, says he will step up his work only after the election. Though he first denies any links with the BJP, he gives the game away when he says later that he's too busy with election work to do anything else now.

Janubhai says he's not against the Christians. What he is against is the use of loans meant for Hindus by the converts. His rationale explained, he tugs at his saffron muffler, bows, folds his hands, says a quick "Jai Shri Ram" and strides away.

If people like Jamir Merchant aren't worried what a BJP government may augur, Father T V Gaikwad of the Church of North India is. It was his church -- or the ramshackle, temporary structure that passed for one -- that alleged members of the HJM destroyed. Gaikwad, quite used to journalists -- even Prime Minister A B Vajpayee met him -- deals with the media like a pro.

He smiles hugely when he says he is not bothered which party comes to power. And no, he has no plans to tell his flock which way to vote. All he wants is that his followers be left alone.

There are good people in the BJP too, rationalises Father Gaikwad. "Like Ad..." he checks himself, "like Vajpayee."

Gaikwad says he is a mite worried what could happen. Anyway, the Dangs electorate makes up just over 10 per cent of the constituency.

"The Adivasis call themselves Hindus. But they have their own gods," says Gaikwad, himself a Kukna tribal who converted to Christianity. "I did not convert my parents," he points out, admitting that they weren't interested in converting either.

Besides Kuknas, there are Kunbi, Bhil, Warli and Kathodi tribals in the area. This is sharply different from the composition of the tribal population in the rest of Valsad -- the Dodiya Patels, the Naikas and the Harpatis.

Sister Carmen Borges, a nun who works at the Deep Darshan School, is clearly worried. "I don't know how things will be under the Congress or under the BJP," she says. "All I can say is that, at present, we are feeling secure. But I am not allowed to comment on politics."

But this isn't about politics. It's about having seen a mob attack her school. And memory does something to Sr Carmen. The fear shows through.

"We aren't totally secure," she concedes a little uncertainly, worry creasing her brow. "The whole of India is not peaceful," she says. "They feel we are converting the people. They feel threatened and this is their way of creating some kind of security." It's unspoken bitterness there.

"We've been 25 years here. We've never faced anything like this."

The Rediff Election Specials

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