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BJP faces a tough fight in Amreli district
Sheela Bhatt in Amreli |
December 07, 2002 20:37 IST
Saurashtra is not central Gujarat and Amreli is not the land of Hindutva.
This is Patel territory.
In this almost zero-industrial-development zone, no one talks of Kashmir or aatankvad (terrorism) in spite of the fact that it has been a Bharatiya Janata Party bastion for the last 12 years. In 1998, all six assembly seats in Amreli district were won by the BJP, four of them by Patels. The other two candidates also won only because of the backing of Patels.
In the last 26 years, not a single Congressman has been elected from Amreli City. That was why local politicians were jolted by the response received by party president Sonia Gandhi. A senior journalist, Kaushik Mehta, remarked, "It seems people are fed up with the BJP. Otherwise there is no reason why they should throng to Sonia's meetings."
On Thursday, December 5, Gandhi and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi were both in Babra town of Amreli district. The Congress had mobilised more than 15,000 people while Modi had to be content with less than 5,000. Gandhi arrived before Modi. As a result the chief minister ended up replying to her speech.
Raju Trivedi, a teastall owner in Babra, said, "I am a BJP voter, but this time my party is in trouble. Village folk are not
revealing their mind.�
The BJP faces a tough fight in three of the six seats in Amreli. Even party politicians admit that their margins will be reduced by the issues of water scarcity, low procurement price of farm produce, and power cuts. Here, the election is being fought on the issue of development, or the lack of it. For instance, one of the hot topics of discussion in this laidback town is the Thebi dam, which was abandoned by the BJP government.
Water, not Hindutva, is the most sensitive word in this agrarian society. The Thebi dam was planned to solve the water problem of the farmers. The BJP's Purshottam Rupala, who is seeking re-election from Amreli, faces a tough time explaining why the project was shelved. Clearly, he faces a crisis of credibility. Rupala has no time to even think of Godhra or Akshardham. His supporters are going around town giving Rupala's defence of his role in the Thebi controversy.
Rohit Gondhaiya, a student who is waiting for December 12 to vote Rupala out, accuses the BJP politician of having profiteered from the acquisition of land for the project. "Halfway through, the dam was shelved under the excuse that the government doesn't have money to pay some 200 farmers because the land was valued too high at the later stage," he said.
Rupala argues that it is ridiculous to pay Rs 250 crore for land for a Rs 28 crore project. His supporters joke that it will be cheaper to supply distilled water in plastic bottles to the residents of Amreli. Currently, housewives in the town get potable water twice a week. Though the waters of the Mahi river have reached Amreli through a new pipeline, the local civic body does not have a proper distribution system.
Rupala on his part prefers to focus on his 'tiffin meetings' experiment, where he and his party men share food with villagers in his constituency on the third Sunday of every month and listen to their woes. But asked how many he had resolved, Rupala told rediff.com, "In Saurashtra you are supposed to listen to people's woes. That's enough!"
The BJP politician also accepted that "Hindutva ni hawa nathi (there is no Hindutva upsurge)" in Saurashtra. The experienced campaigner, who has won the last three elections in Gujarat, was in Chief Minister Narendra Modi's camp when the latter was involved in a power struggle with former chief minister Keshubhai Patel.
Rupala now faces the youngest candidate to contest this year's Gujarat election. Paresh Dhanani, the 26-year-old chief of the Amreli district unit of the Congress-affiliated National Students Union of India, is projecting himself as Mr Clean. He told rediff.com, "I started my political career by sticking posters and I know my city as well as elders."
Dhanani belongs to the Leuva Patel community, which is in a majority in the 1,52,000 electorate of Amreli town and the 70 villages that comprise the constituency. The Leuva Patels number about 62,000 while the Kadva Patels, Rupala's community, are around 5,800. Rupala, however, was winning till now because of the active support and goodwill of BJP Member of Parliament Dilip Sanghani.
Dhanani says, "The Modi-Musharraf rhetoric is just not working here. I'll get 14,500 Muslim votes, 23,000 dalit votes and since I am Leuva Patel myself, I'll be supported by them too."
In Amreli, television news reports or the print media's views hardly matter. What matters is whether a candidate happily shares tea and ganthiya (a salty fried snack made of gram flour) with the villagers. So don't be surprised to hear that BJP candidates in this district have been getting, and will continue to get, Muslim votes. When Ahmedabad and Baroda were in the grip of an anti-Muslim frenzy earlier this year, Amreli showed exemplary restraint, again thanks to Sanghani and his local BJP workers, who visited Muslim-dominated areas with senior police officers, held mohalla meetings, and helped to defuse any tension. Needless to say, local Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders are not too pleased with them and have been working to defame 'Dilip Ali'.
But Muzaffar Hussain Saiyad, a senior Congress politician, told rediff.com, "In Amreli district 30 per cent of Muslims will vote for the BJP candidates of their area. People here vote for the candidate who gives them a patient hearing. Communal sentiments are absent."