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September 2, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ L K Advani

'Before, there was no water, no electricity, no school. Now, all three are there, but they are not sufficient'

Amberish K Diwanji in Gandhinagar

Lal Kishinchand Advani on Wednesday undertook a whirlwind tour of his constituency, Gandhinagar, the modern capital of Gujarat. A constituency he won by an awesome margin of over 276,000 votes in 1998. A constituency that comprises Gandhinagar (a small city wherein most residents are either ministers, ex-ministers or government employees), certain parts of Ahmedabad (Gujarat's largest city), and about 89 villages spread out around Gandhinagar.

Though Advani can be reasonably sure of winning (the Congress, of course, insists otherwise), the fact is it is no longer as safe a seat as it was last year, or earlier. Rising aspirations and unmet expectations are taking their toll on the voters.

Around noon, Advani visited Gokulnagar, a village few miles off Gandhinagar. An impressive cavalcade of at least a dozen vehicles, including two ambulances from the local hospital, raise a storm of dust as it arrives in the small village of around 500 houses.

The villagers are already present to hear their leader speak, having been brought to the meeting place by the over-enthusiastic local BJP workers.

First, the local MLA, Vajubhai Vali, speaks in Gujarati. Then Advani takes the microphone and dwells on issues of national concern and on Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

"Vajpayee is the best leader India has had, in war and in peace; his government was defeated by just one vote; his government never buckled to Jayalalitha's threats, the leader from the south about whom you may have heard of..." and so on.

There was, however, one small problem. The overwhelming majority of the villagers present did not understand Hindi. Even then, at regular intervals, they would politely applaud, whenever the local BJP leaders did so.

To put it in cricketing terms, Advani's speech was a complete bouncer. And it was made worse by the fact that he spoke of national concerns to these poor villagers who were more concerned with their daily struggle.

Later, the village women complained that Gokulnagar did not get water, "only one tanker of water comes to the village once a week, how can that be sufficient"; the village school had classes only up to standard seven and for further studies children had to go far away; there was no electricity and because the fans did not work the mosquitoes made life miserable!

The fact, as one local BJP leader who spoke Hindi claimed, is that ever since Advani became the constituency representative in 1991, the situation has improved. "Before, there was no water, no electricity, no school. Now, all three are there, but they are not sufficient and the demand is for more. Water is difficult to get, but hopefully the other two will be resolved soon," this young leader explained.

This youngster ran a business in Gandhinagar, owning a telephone booth. His biggest complaint was the lack of a proper and sufficient bus service to and from the village to the city. Gandhinagar is a sprawling metropolis, having been built in the 1960s, and transportation is a major problem.

Later, this leader also said that in the evening, the local leaders would translate Advani's speech into the local dialect (which is a little different from Gujarati). When one women was asked who she would vote for, she replied, "For Advani."

Why? A pause. "I don't know, but we all vote for the same candidate and we have decided to vote for the BJP."

Advani's Hindi was a hit in his next port of call, a housing society in Gandhinagar. Speaking simply, and cracking jokes at his opponent, his same speech about how this government was defeated by one questionable vote went down well.

His government lost by one wicket, bowled off the last ball that was clearly a no-ball. "The vote by Giridhar Gamang should never have been cast," he said.

The home minister kept a busy schedule, meeting as many people, flagging off a cycle rally for the BJP, meeting local leaders. Yet, while many of the receptions were on the positive side, some were clearly not.

For instance, in the morning he visited the Dhola Kuan locality, a village that has now been placed under the Gandhinagar municipal council. The move was welcomed by the residents there who felt that as part of the state's capital, life would improve. They now think they were cheated and let Advani know that in no uncertain terms.

The home minister was received by a hostile crowd that wanted to know why the civic administration and the state government were not doing anything to improve the facilities in their locality. And why was Advaniji not pulling up the state government?

Similarly, later, when Advani went to address a meeting of the state Sachivalaya (secretariat) employees, the reception was extremely sour and Advani could hardly address the rally. In both cases, the concerns were local -- the shutting down of a department with 1,600 employees, the lack of water in Gandhinagar, raising the income tax limit, and so forth.

The handicap for Advani, who faces the formidable T N Seshan as the Congress candidate, is the lack of performance of the state BJP government. The anti-incumbency factor is in full flow, made worse by the fact that the central BJP leadership (of which Advani is part) has done little to improve the situation in the state.

There is also resentment that as Union home minister, Advani is too busy to look into the local problems of Gandhinagar such as lack of water.

But if being a minister can be a handicap, it also has its plus-points. In the afternoon, Advani visited Borij village, inhabited by the Vanjaras (gypsies). The reception was grand. Turbaned, proud men in white Gujarati-style traditional dress, women in the beautiful bright colours of their best clothes, all hailed his presence.

The Vanjaras of Gujarat (and Rajasthan) are demanding they be given the status of Scheduled Tribes that the community has in the rest of India. And Advani promised to give them the same as soon as possible.

Thus it is that the BJP workers pooh-poohed fears of any threat. "Advani will win. If anything, the margin will be better," claimed one state level leader.

Several factors are at play here. His stature, the deep-rooted sympathy for the BJP in Gujarat which will take time to disappear despite the state unit's best efforts, and the BJP's organizational strength.

Certainly, Advani's image as home minister and his national stature make a difference. Even at the few rallies where the crowds are hostile, the people admit that they would vote for the BJP. "No one likes the Congress. What have they done in all these years," said a shopkeeper in Gandhinagar.

But for sure, Advani will have to keep a closer watch on his constituency henceforth.

Advani gets heckled

Campaign Trail

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