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|November 20, 1998||
Bharuch appears headed for a photofinish
Saisuresh Sivaswamy in Bharuch
The Congress party has fielded the same candidate in November that it did in February 1998, as has the Janata Dal. So what's new in Bharuch? The Bharatiya Janata Party's Mansukhbhai Vasava, that's who. Naturally, because the bye-election was caused by the death of the BJP's Chandubhai Deshmukh.
The constituency's voter profile makes it evident why the three leading parties have fielded the candidates they have. Of more than a million voters, the adivasis comprise a whopping 33 per cent, other backward classes 18 per cent, Muslims 18 per cent, and Patels 11 per cent.
The Congress has always fielded a Muslim candidate here, notable among them being Ahmed Patel who was elected in 1980 and 1984. Then came the mandir-masjid tussle, followed by Mandal, a double-whammy from which the premier national party never really recovered. From 1989, the seat was won by Chandubhai Deshmukh, though his vote share had declined from 57.7 per cent to 33.5 per cent in February this year.
A trek through the enormous constituency reveals why. Development and prosperity, whose golden fingers run through neighbouring parts of Gujarat state, seem to have missed out Bharuch whose seven assembly segments, barring Ankleshwar, resemble a pastoral countryside.
While the BJP, which has represented the seat for almost a decade now, is busy shifting the blame to the Congress party's preceding 49 years of neglect, the local population are not duffers. "We are trying to repair the neglect of Deshmukh's tenure," confided a state legislator in Mangrole, where the BJP leadership is brainstorming the locals.
The Congress is on the horns of a dilemma. Even assuming that all the Muslim voters rally behind it on November 25, it still won't take its candidate, MLA Iqbal Kakuji Patel, to the 12th Lok Sabha. To do this, it needs to lure away chunks from the Janata Dal's Chhotubhai Vasava, and the BJP, which seems difficult with just five days to go for polling.
The Janata Dal's Chhotubhai Vasava, an adivasi strongman, believes he is sitting pretty. In the last Lok Sabha election, he cornered 145,773 votes, up from the 1996 figure of 136,874. This time round, he is supported by Shankersinh Vaghela's Rashtriya Janata Party, which had earned 51,364 votes in February. But his cause has been weakened by the recent defection of two Janata Dal-RJP MLAs to the Congress.
The BJP is not in a comfortable position, despite its local leaders' claim that they will win by more than 100,000 votes. For one, its candidate, Mansukhbhai Vasava, is from nearby Rajpipalgaon, and had lost the 1998 assembly election. But he is a master's in social work, and is believed to have done great work among the adivasis.
In Jambusar assembly segment, it is the BJP all the way. As the campaign hots up, the party has moved into top gear, hurling its cadres at the electorate. Of course, the price rise is an issue here, as it is elsewhere, but the message from the BJP's pracharaks is clear; it is beyond our control, and it is also owing to the policies of the previous governments.
Salim, a tea-stall vendor, swears by the BJP to me, before I explain that my saffron shirt has nothing to do with my profession. Then he opens up easily about the Congress. In Vagra, stronghold of Congress legislator Iqbal Patel, the vote is already going the Congress's way, barring a last-minute polarisation and mobilisation in favour of the BJP. "Of course they can do anything, create tension, provoke violence," says Patel.
In Bharuch city itself, there is little sign of anybody barring the BJP. "They are an urban party, and they have always been strong here," says Amar Singh Raj of the Congress.
Ankleshwar again is a BJP stronghold, but where it is weak is in Jhagadia, Mangrole and Dediapada, the last two with a sizeable adivasi population. Interestingly, in February 1998, if there had been a one-to-one fight with the BJP, the opposition would have won hands down.
"It is not so simple," says Rajnikant Rajwadi, BJP MLA from Bardoli. The last time the voters were confused because both assembly and parliamentary elections were being held together, and the issues were blurred. This time, everything is clear."
Perhaps, but what is not clear to an impartial observer is the outcome of the November 25 bye-election.
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