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'Sonia seems capable of ensuring peace'
Amberish Kathewad Diwanji in Vandeli |
December 09, 2002 12:12 IST
Vandeli is a small village tucked away in the vast landscape of India. So insignificant is it that few people even know the route to the village.
But on December 8, a rally addressed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi turned the spotlights on this village.
The village was chosen because it sits in the heart of the tribal region of Gujarat, in the newly created Dahod district that borders Madhya Pradesh, and is just about 25 kilometres from Godhra.
Vandeli was unaffected, though the nearby towns of Halol and Kalol were among the worst-hit regions during the gruesome riots of March and April.
Villagers, numbering about 15,000, were brought in trucks, tempos and tractors to this village to cheer the Congress chief and the party's leader in Gujarat, Shankarsinh Vaghela.
Many of them had reached the venue by 1000 IST and patiently sat in the sun. Campaigning in winter has its own advantages.
Not unexpectedly, the real excitement was watching the helicopter carrying Sonia Gandhi, and another Indian Air Force helicopter, land and later take off a short distance from the dais, throwing up huge clouds of dust.
Sonia Gandhi has come a long way from the days when she used to simply read out ghost-written speeches. She looked up frequently at the crowd, but this did cause her to stumble upon her words more often. Not that the crowd seemed to mind; many of those present were adivasis with a limited knowledge of Hindi.
It was Shankarsinh Vaghela's speech that was far more exciting to the crowd.
Speaking in Gujarati, he blasted the Bharatiya Janata Party for its acts of commission and omission and promised happiness, peace, prosperity and safety for all. He spoke forcefully and with conviction, and in a sense matched the vigour that caretaker Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is leading the BJP charge, has displayed so far.
As has been the case with the Congress, he stuck to economic issues and harped on the issue of unemployment, a sore point with many of the poor adivasis and villagers, who despite possessing the necessary qualifications find it difficult to get suitable employment.
Among the crows was Majidbhai Shaikh, who said regardless of whether he was impressed with Sonia's speech, as a Muslim, he had little choice but to vote for the Congress. Asked whether he was voting out of conviction or lack of choice, he shrugged his shoulders before answering, "Conviction."
"Sonia and Vaghela seem capable of ensuring peace," he added.
Shaikh, who requested that the name of his village, near Vandeli, not be mentioned to ensure his security, said the recent riots had shaken him and promised that he would vote.
Jagdish Gopalsinh Rawat, an adivasi from Vasderiya village in Panchmahal district (where Godhra is located), also said he would vote for the Congress. His motivation stems from economic factors.
"The price of diesel has risen so much that farming has become very difficult," he lamented. In the semi-arid state, water for agriculture is pumped from deep tube wells and diesel is used to run the pumps.
Rawat, who is about 22 years old, admitted that things were not much better when the Congress governed earlier, and he was not sure if things would improve if the Congress returned to power.
"But what choice do we really have. It is either the Congress or the BJP. At present, the BJP has failed and we have to give the Congress a chance," he said.
Tragically, this deep despondency that the poll outcome would not change their living conditions was very much evident. The notion that politicians are only in the game to make money rather than actually change things for the better has taken on the conviction of a religious belief.
Another young adivasi hailing from Chunri village in Dahod district pointed out how Lalit Patel, who was elected from Dahod constituency, has now become a rich man. "Earlier, he stayed in a small house, quite close to where we are staying. Now, he has a huge bungalow both here and in Gandhinagar," he said rather bitterly.
This man said that he was not certain of getting a job even if the regime changed. After finishing his schooling, he has been forced to work on his small farm where his earnings are limited.
Turning to a sensitive topic: why did the adivasis turn upon the Muslims during the recent riots. The reply was surprisingly common all across, giving rise to the suspicion that it might have been rehearsed: "The atmosphere was such that we were all swept away."
Shaikh insisted that adivasis and Muslims have lived together for years, but the atmosphere that was created after the Godhra carnage was so hateful that no non-Muslim could think sensibly.
Jagdish Rawat too gave the same reason, but stressed that there was no problem in his village since there are no Muslims.
The principal of a college in one of the smaller towns of Dahod district, who requested anonymity, said that post-Godhra, everyone has been swept away by the emotion of hate.
"Even the media is to blame. By repeatedly broadcasting the entire carnage so vividly, it only helped inflame passions," he said.
Having lived among the adivasis for years, he said their major concern is getting a decent education and finding suitable jobs. "Attacking your neighbour of years is something that no sane person would do unless he or she is incited to do so. That is what happened after Godhra," he said.
He is convinced that most of the adivasis would vote for the Congress.