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The Rediff Election Special/Saisuresh Sivaswamy

A bastion lost to neglect

E-Mail this story to a friend The first thought that strikes you as you drive across Bharuch constituency is that the landscape is dotted with mosques. And the second is that it is not going to be possible to cover the entire constituency in a day. If, as the driver points out, the roads were better and enabled speeds exceeding 30 kph, perhaps the whole thing could be wrapped up.

Jambusar, the first port of call, is almost 50 km away from the Bharuch city assembly segment. In terms of progress, Bharat reigns supreme here. It's not a particularly lush landscape either, and the township itself emanates from the local bus-stand. Oh yes, the vegetables in the marketplace are plentiful and fresh, but conspicuous by their absence are potatoes and onions, to the opposition's delight.

As I am finding my bearings in the marketplace, a BJP jatha (procession) of around 30 men and women passes by. The group is from Baroda, and has come down to spread the BJP's message. "We are telling the people that the price-rise is not because of the BJP government's policies, but because of seasonal factors, and the policies of the earlier government," says the leader of the group. "And the people are believing us."

Citizen Joe is not showing his hand yet. But what stands out early on in the campaign trail is the BJP's effort. Even as I am internalising it passes by a Congress jeep bedecked prominently with Indira and Rajiv Gandhi's portraits, and also of Sonia Gandhi. The chaiwallah (tea-seller) I stop at is emphatic about the BJP's victory and his own support for it, but something tells me he's lying. Sure enough, he admits, after being shown my credentials, to having been taken in by my saffron shirt, and shows his true Congress colours.

The police, meantime, show up from nowhere, and start clearing the mohalla (lane), since Ahmed Patel is slated to hold a meeting there at 1 pm. Temptation raises its head, briefly, to stay on, before grim memory of the previous night's no-show stifles it.

At Vagra, some 30 km from Jambusar, the picture was grim for the BJP, in both the Lok Sabha and assembly polls in February. While Iqbal Patel of the Congress was elected to state assembly, in the Lok Sabha poll in the segment, the BJP was trounced by Iqbal Kakuji. It is not hard to see why: the Muslims turned out in strength on polling day, and threaten to do so again.

The Rashtriya Janata Party has just opened its local office that day, and a quick visit shows a couple of ministers in the erstwhile Shankersinh Vaghela government deliberating with a sant of the Swaminarayan sect. The RJP is supporting Chhotubhai Vasava's candidature, and is raring to put it across to the BJP.

The roads are pathetic, the scene misty, and the people obviously poor. Makes one wonder, what do they get out of their periodic outing to the polling station?

In Bharuch City, if visibility is any yardstick, the BJP is facing a shoo-in. Chhotubhai Vasava of the Janata Dal is obviously focusing his energies on what he thinks is the BJP's Achilles heel, the countryside, and the Congress, in the city at least, is too stuporous to put up even a semblance of a fight.

My driver, an avowed Congress voter, informs me that when the BJP took out a rally through the city's main road, around 5,000 people turned up. And for the Congress rally, hardly 50 did...

The Narmada divides Bharuch constituency into two. While Bharuch, Vagra and Jambusar are on this side, across the river lie Ankleshwar, Dediapada, Mangrole and Jaghadia. Connecting the two sides is the grandiosely titled Golden Bridge, a narrow two-lane affair that preludes heavy traffic.

The acidity in the air on crossing the Narmada into Ankleshwar is an indication of the industrial activity in the area. This is a bustling township, with well-maintained roads, that is, till you cross the railway bridge to go to Piraman village. Obviously, this segment voted BJP, and is all set to do so again.

There are a lot of industrial housing complexes here, accommodating employees working in factories set up in the backward regions of Mangrole and Dediapada. From now on, the quality of the roads deteriorates, which when combined with the heavy vehicular movement, can make life miserable.

The landscape also changes here... becoming wilder. The driver has his own rationale for covering the tribal areas first, leaving Jhagadia for the last, since, as he says, he would like to get out of this region fast as there is no predicting what could happen after sundown.

This is all Chhotubhai Vasava territory, make no mistake about it, even if there is little sign of either him or his party in these parts. A lot of business houses have set up their units here, taking advantage of the concessions given to backward areas, and not all of them apparently have pleasant memories to take home.

Information gleaned from locals also paints a different kind of picture, of a man hailed on one hand as a 'messiah' of the tribals. Vasava, it is alleged, works simple strong-arm tactics with the industrial units, and his deal is clear: buy your peace with us, or your factory will not be allowed to work normally. There are ways of getting this done, as the local Narmada 150 manufacturer found to their horror. Today the factory lies in a shambles, its premises overgrown by weeds. "The Adivasis may treat him as their god, but not so the capitalists," says a local.

In Mangrole, even as we pull in, the only sign of a political campaign going in seems to be the BJP's. Converting the local temple into a kind of auditorium, the brass from Gandhinagar, including ministers and legislators, are involved in fire-fighting operations. "You tell us what your grievances are, and we will sort them out this time. If there have been any lapses on our part in the past, please bear with us and give us another chance," goes the refrain. And the villagers appear willing to listen, even if they don't end up voting for the party.

In Mangrole assembly segment in February, Chandubhai Deshmukh trailed Vasava of the Janata Dal 23,707 votes to 33,320, and even the Congress had managed a respectable 22,156 votes here. So the alarm in the BJP camp is acute.

Rajnikant Rajwadi, MLA from Bardoli, puts it down to "neglect" in Deshmukh's term, which he promises the party will redress if it is re-elected from here.

Onward to Dediapada results in similar stories. The roads, like tattered rags for the most part, suddenly seem to have been darned afresh, indicative as nothing else could be of impending elections. "Ah, if there are bad roads, how can the leaders come to campaign here?" asks a goatherd wryly, even as the sun slowly dips behind a depression.

Again, there is no party in sight, at least not in the township, barring the BJP, which is involved in hectic parleys with the locals, at the centre of its attraction reportedly being the daughter of the late MP.

In Dediapada segment, the BJP was well and truly worsted in February, Deshmukh scoring just 23,880 votes compared to Vasava's 47,848 votes. The Congress candidate took away 12,416 votes, and the RJP 9,838.

"Onion seems to be the only issue the opposition is talking about," ridicules a state minister who is leading the charge here. "They are ignoring other issues..." Like what? "Development," comes the pat reply. Err... since the BJP has been represented here since 1989, perhaps the BJP should thank its stars that the focus is not under-development, you suggest, before the politician realises he has bitten off more than he can chew.

Moving in for the kill, you ask him about the BJP's declining vote share in the parliamentary constituency, from over 50 per cent in 1989 to around 33 per cent in 1998 -- if this is not a sign of lack of confidence in the party, what else is?

On the back foot, the minister vainly tries to seize the initiative, talking of a fresh start now with a new candidate. When you point out again that he had in fact lost the previous assembly election, again he is stumped. A state of affairs that may well describe the BJP's fortunes in the constituency.

Once we wind up with Dediapada and return, the heavy traffic rush has begun on the roads. But an indicator of the region's "development" is that all the time while we are on the road, from Ankleshwar and back, easily three hours, we do not once see an ST bus on the road. If the populace goes against the party responsible for this, don't be surprised, even if the BJP is.

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Assembly Elections '98

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