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February 26, 1998


Campaign Trail/V Gangadhar

Lotus blooms in Khadia-Raipur

There are more people queuing up outside Ahmedabad's Roopalee Cinema showing Mira Nair's Kamasutra than at any election meetings. Candidates for the Lok Sabha and state assembly polls often plough a lonely furrow.

But there are exceptions. Take the case of Khadia-Raipur assembly constituency, a stronghold of militant Hindutva. Its Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Ashok Bhatt is the monarch of all he surveys.

Bhatt, who entered public life in 1956 through the Mahagujarat movement and then joined the Jana Sangh in 1960, is aiming for his seventh straight win from this constituency. A true soldier of the Sangh Parivar and a 'loyal deputy' to former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, Bhatt had been minister for civil supplies, revenue and employment during the previous BJP regimes.

Khadia-Raipur is a bustling middle class area of shopkeepers and traders. Traffic is thick and disorganised. Besides people and their vehicles, roads are full of cows, buffaloes and donkeys, carrying sand to building sites. The Bharatiya Janata Party's Lotus flutters everywhere.

I joined Bhatt outside the famous 'Raipur Bhajiya House'. Dressed in pyjamas-kurta, sporting a big tilak on his forehead, the candidate was accompanied by half a dozen aides who kept notebooks and pencils ready.

Bhatt walked briskly, pausing to do namaste to shopkeepers who smiled and threw flowers and garlands at him. The welcome was warmer inside the narrow poles (lanes). Gujarati bahens, old and young, welcomed their favourite bhai. The older women blessed him. The younger women spoke out about water scarcity and unpaved roads. But there was no anger. The tone was indulgent. Bhatt asked his aides why the roads were not paved. He had passed on orders sometime back.

Water supply was a permanent problem. ''The pipelines are more than one hundred years old,'' Bhatt told Rediff On The NeT. ''At present, Sabarmati is the only source of water and the pressure is low. We had hoped that Narmada water would be made available to the city, but the project is dragging on and on.'' Bhatt quickly turned to respond to the greeting of a rabari (cowherd).

During the 1950s, Khadia was the stronghold of the Praja Socialist Party and its intellectuals. There had always been a streak of anti-Congressism in the area, except during the heyday of Indira Gandhi. The youth had been rebellious. During disturbances, they used to harass the police, escaping through the winding lanes. But today, saffron dominates the area. There is hardly a Muslim at Bhatt's campaign.

We sat down at a shop and sipped Coke. Bhatt is opposed by Kokilaben Bhatt of the Congress, whose husband Rameshbhai Bhatt was his opponent in the last assembly election. The husband was trounced and the wife is certain to meet with the same fate. There is no stopping the Ashok Bhatt bandwagon. ''We shall win around 22 to 24 Lok Sabha seats and more than 130 assembly seats,'' he asserted. His aides nodded with enthusiasm.

I asked him about Shankarsinh Vaghela, who had defected from the BJP to form the Rashtriya Janata Party which ruled the state for about a year with the support of the Congress. ''Gujarat people punish defectors,'' Bhatt asserted. '' Remember the fate of former chief minister Chimanbhai Patel, a master defector? He was without power for 15 years. Vaghela will fare worse.'' He predicted that Keshubhai Patel will be crowned the chief minister.

I asked him about the absence of Muslims in his campaign and his reputation of a Hindutva hardliner. ''We have 23,000 Muslims in this constituency and most of them are with me,'' Bhatt claimed.

According to Bhatt, the BJP government was out to get the anti-social elements, irrespective of their caste or religion. ''We smashed the ISI, the dreaded Pakistan intelligence agency, which had made inroads in Gujarat during the time of Chimanbhai Patel,'' he said. ''Our government arrested gangsters like Wahab, Mohamad Surti, Bura Miya.''

Unfortunately, gangsterism and anti-national activities raised their heads when Vaghela came to power. Nepal and Gujarat, explained Bhatt, were the regions where the ISI was most active. Along with their local agents, the ISI was dealing in RDX, brown sugar, automatic weapons and counterfeit currency.

The candidate scoffed at the Sonia factor. Gujarat would not succumb to the charm of the ''Italian lady." They had no love for the Nehru-Gandhi family. Didn't Jawaharlal Nehru deny Sardar Patel his rightful place in Indian history? Who didn't know Indira Gandhi was disrespectful to another famous son of Gujarat, Morarji Desai?

Ashok Bhatt, who was once a clerk in a textile mill, had come a long way. As another woman admirer came to garland him, he got up and resumed his campaign for 'A Safe Gujarat, A Prosperous Gujarat'.

If Ashok Bhatt's campaign was rambunctious, his mentor Keshubhai Patel was much more sedate. He is old, he is weary and not keeping good health. Keshubhai also lacks charisma and is not a good speaker.

Keshubhai, who is contesting the assembly poll from Visavadar constituency and is certain to become the chief minister, however, has certain inbuilt advantages. He is a Patel, a farmer, imbibed in the RSS discipline and culture. And a favourite with the Sangh Parivar elements in the BJP. In conservative Gujarat what more could one ask for?

The former chief minister is not very keen on house-to-house campaigning. Unlike other candidates who were concerned only with their constituencies, Keshubhai had to campaign throughout the state.

I caught up with his campaign at three places -- Kapadwanj, Mehmadabad and Unava village in Gandhinagar district.

Keshubhai travels in a large motorcade, along with his party faithfuls. A bad knee restricted his movements and he speaks to the villagers sitting down. The Patels flock to listen to him, but not the dalits and the Muslims. His reputation as a hardcore Hindutva propagator preceded him.

At his campaign meetings, he frequently referred to Vaghela's treachery, the need to finish him off politically and order an enquiry into corruption charges against him. He also talked of providing additional facilities to the farmers. The applause was mild, but the respect was evident. He listed items from the BJP manifesto -- a stable government to sarees to the poor women.

There was some additional excitement at Unava village. Keshubhai's arch rival Vaghela was campaigning at the nearby Vasan village. There was heavy police bandobast, but the two rivals did not have a eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

The Patels in the village were certain that all their votes will be for the BJP while the Thakurs, the dalits and the Muslims could vote either for the RJP or the Congress.

Keshubhai often lashed out against the ruthless ambition and treachery of Vaghela. But, surprisingly, there was not much of cheering. The audiences were more interested in letting bygones go and wanted to know if their lot would be better than the BJP government headed by Keshubhai Patel. On this, the future chief minister did not say much.

The only cutouts I saw during my three-day campaign survey in Gujarat were those of RJP's Gandhinagar candidate Chaitanya Shambu Maharaj. He drove in a Maruti van with two modest-sized cutouts on top and dozens of flags fluttering merrily.

The 'trumpet' was the RJP symbol. Maharaj's followers provided everyone with small, cheap plastic trumpets and blew on it with vigour: the campaign began to look like a noisy picnic.

Chaitanya Maharaj aroused more curiosity than even the Congress candidate, retired inspector general of police P K Datta, who walked into the party office and announced he was ready to take on the 'outsider', Lal Kishinchand Advani. But the Congress campaign had fizzled out.

The Maharaj was more visible and was often surrounded by dozens of admirers including several rural women, who too blew the trumpet.

In many of the rural homes, Chaitanya Maharaj, was welcomed with arati and prasad. He was asked to bless the children. People look upto him as a religious leader and not as a prospective leader and a Lok Sabha candidate. That could be a serious handicap for him.

Campaign Trail

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