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|February 24, 1998|
BJP has tough fight against powerful Sanat Mehta
Haresh Pandya in Rajkot
If Congress stalwart Sanat Mehta is a confident of his victory, the bahu (daughter-in-law) of Ahmedabad is back to challenge him as the beti (daughter) of Surendranagar.
A new face among the many aspirants for this Lok Sabha seat, Bharatiya Janata Party nominee Bhavnaben Dave is well aware of the difficulties in contesting against her powerful Congress rival.
Dave claims she has the total support of party hardliners, besides the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Surendranagar.
In the previous Lok Sabha election, RSS and VHP were against the then BJP candidate, Somabhai Koli, and the BJP leaders admit it. But this, they say, was only because of Koli's inclination towards Vaghela, who had split the BJP.
Still, one could figure out from hushed conversations in the BJP corridors that Dave is fighting merely to reduce the victory margin of the well-entrenched Mehta.
The BJP is promoting Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the future prime minister and Keshubhai Patel as the prospective Gujarat chief minister, while the Congress party have replaced the posters of Sitaram Kesri with those of Sonia Gandhi in the villages and hamlets of this district.
The villagers are aware that Sonia has swung into action for the party. Congress leaders are trying to woo them saying that Sonia will visit their area next week and that she is the only person who can make their dreams come true.
Mehta, a former finance minister in the state, is also using his clout to help the Congress candidates campaigning for him in the various assembly constituencies in the district.
Dave is using the influence of BJP leaders to establish her credentials, and remains hopeful of doing well, due to the BJP tag.
Mehta's assets are his contacts with the grassroots level workers and villagers. Some 6,000-7,000 persons turned up at the recent opening of the party's election office at Limbdi, about 20 km from Surendranagar, for the assembly nominee Laljibhai Mer. And the crowd included a number of Dalits and minorities.
"For some time the Congress had gone away from the poor and hence it disintegrated. Now it is very much with the downtrodden," says Mehta. In public meetings, Mehta never fails to recall his efforts for the Sardar Sarovar Project, railway lines for Bhavnagar and Rajkot, and agitations launched for the salt workers and cotton growers in the district.
While Dave still lacks a major issue, she is focussing on the supply of drinking water, a major problem in the area. Water supply is also on the priority list of Mehta. Dave alleges that Mehta is a "stuntman" who can perform stunts on various issues, be it a pro-Narmada movement or salt worker's rally.
But Dave's greatest thrust is in doing away with her image of an outsider. "I was born and brought up in Limbdi. I studied in Surendranagar and I settled in Ahmedabad only after marriage. So how can I be an outsider? I've come to take the right of a sister. I don't want land, money, or a sari but only your vote," is what Dave said at an election meeting in Halvad, about 65 km from Surendranagar.
She says she has almost completed her first round of electioneering, and has contacted the voters in all the talukas and major villagers of the district. She, however, pleads helplessness in contacting people in each and every village. "How can I cover 900 villages in such a short period?" she asks in defiance.
Mehta has a different strategy. He has been convening meetings of party leaders and workers, meeting village office-bearers, and encouraging others to campaign for the Congress. "I don't believe in rounds. Not even in audio or video cassettes. I believe in face to face contacts," says Mehta.
Mehta and his colleagues are banking on Sonia's visit while Dave and her friends want Sushma Swaraj to campaign for her as election day nears.
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