The Maha Gujarat Sant Sammelan at Mahudi, a small town of religious significance in Gandhinagar district, on Tuesday, is being seen as an attempt by the Congress to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party's plan to make the Hindu card its monopoly in the next assembly election.
Sources in the Congress themselves pointed out that their Gujarat unit chief, Shankersinh Vaghela, is a veteran of such caste- and religion-based conventions to launch a political message.
"Tuesday's sammelan was attended by chhota-mota sadhus," one participant said, "but all of them have their pockets of influence in their respective villages amongst the other backward classes, whom the Congress is eyeing."
Chhote Murari Bapu, one of the speakers at the convention, told rediff.com, "We are not satisfied with the performance of the BJP, which won on the basis of Hindu votes. BJP leaders have broken their promises. They have not done anything to build the Ram temple [at Ayodhya]. They have ditched the sadhu samaj [ascetic community]."
Chhote Murari Bapu, who is seen as the "poor man's sadhu" in this part of Gujarat, declared: "We will ask the Hindus to not vote for the BJP this time. The sadhu samaj will support the Congress." In Gujarat, quite a few religious networks hold the power to influence voters.
Gujarat State Congress Committee vice-president Shaktisinh Gohil denied that his party was behind the Mahudi convention. "We have not sponsored it," Gohil told rediff.com. "But it's a fact that the sadhus of Gujarat are displeased with the BJP."
"All of us know," he continued, "that the BJP won the last election by exploiting people with 'Hindu' feelings. They conquered power through their votes. Now many such Hindus with genuine Hinduism in their hearts are questioning them."
Many small-time tantriks and buvas were also seen at the Mahudi convention. Many of these ascetics have a strong hold on the Rabari and Bharwad communities in north and central Gujarat. These communities traditionally vote according to the wishes expressed by these religious leaders.
Mahant Baldevgiri of Valinath, who chaired the gathering and heads the Bharwad and Rabari communities, claimed that he would be asking his people to vote for the Congress.
In fact, many of these sadhus met for the first time at Vasania, Vaghela's native village, last month.
In north and central Gujarat, a large number of voters belong to the Thakore community. They have a tradition called jalo in which they arrange a community lunch and make their electoral choice there.
Another participant at the Mahudi convention explained, "In north Gujarat they distribute paan [betel leaf] to unite the community in favour of one party or the other. A community leader's acceptance of paan means that he and his followers have accepted the invitation to vote for a particular candidate."
Vaghela, the participant said, has good knowledge of such traditions and will exploit them to the hilt. "Even witch-hunters can be used in some places in Sabarkantha district," he said.
The convention adopted several resolutions, including one in favour of amendments to the Devasthan Abolition Act.
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