The Vyara assembly seat, which gave Gujarat its first tribal chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhary, will for the first time see a contest between two Christian candidates fielded by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress.
While the Congress has given ticket to its sitting MLA Punabhai Gamit from the seat, reserved for Scheduled Tribe candidates, the BJP has for the first time fielded a Christian candidate, Mohan Konkani, to take on the four-time legislator.
Gamit says Christian voters will again support the Congress, while Konkani claims people will vote for the BJP because of the development carried out by the saffron party government in the state.
Political analysts say the Congress's approach of taking the marginalised sections together has helped it in winning tribal-dominated seats, while the BJP will have to do a rethinking to win in Vyara, considering the social dynamics in this aAssembly segment.
Christians account for nearly 40,000, or 20 per cent, of the total 2.20 lakh voters in the seat, considered as a stronghold of the Congress and located in tribal-dominated Tapi district of south Gujarat.
Most of the Christians have converted from the tribal Gamit, Chaudhary and Konkani communities. The seat goes to polls in the first phase of Gujarat elections on December 1.
Congress veteran Amarsinh Chaudhary won this seat four times between 1972 and 1985 and became the state's first -- and so far the only -- tribal chief minister in 1985.
Punabhai Gamit first won the by-election from the seat in 2004, necessitated after sitting MLA and Amarsinh Chaudhary's son Tushar Chaudhary won the Lok Sabha election from Mandvi seat.
He was then pitted against BJP's Pratap Gamit, whom he defeated in three subsequent elections. In 2017, Gamit defeated BJP's Arvind Chaudhary.
For the 2022 election, the BJP has decided for the first time to field a Christian tribal candidate, Mohan Konkani.
Sociologist Gaurang Jani told PTI the Congress's success in tribal seats because of its approach to take marginalised communities together appears to have played an important role in the BJP's rethinking of its strategy.
The conversion of tribals to Christianity has been going on in the region for a long time, making its social dynamics "complicated," he claimed.
In the last seven assembly elections since 1990, the Congress has won more number of ST-reserved seats in the state compared to the BJP, except in 1995 and 2002.
Asked about the role the Christian factor played in determining his candidacy for the seat, BJP leader Mohan Konkani told PTI there are other factors at play as well.
He said it is his dedication to the party since 1995 and his district panchayat membership from 2002 that have also played a significant role, and people from all communities are with him.
At the same time, the fact that Christians account for a sizable number of voters in the seat cannot be overlooked, he said.
The BJP is also upbeat following its first victory in tribal-dominated Tapi district panchayat in the February 2021 election, said Konkani, the sitting panchayat member of the saffron party.
"The seat from where I won the district panchayat election as the BJP candidate has 75 per cent Christian voters, and they have supported me overwhelmingly. There is no reason why Christians should not support the BJP, which has remained in power in the state for nearly three decades," Konkani said.
People in the region have also witnessed and are influenced by the development carried out by the state's BJP government, he said.
"Everybody is impressed by the development work carried out in the state's tribal belt including Vyara. Whatever development the region has witnessed is because of the BJP. Vyara did not witness so much development even when it elected a chief minister," he claimed.
This time, a total of seven candidates are in fray from the Vyara seat.
Apart from the BJP and Congress candidates, the Bharatiya Tribal Party has fielded Sunil Gamit, the Aam Aadmi Party has given ticket to Bipinchandra Chaudhary, and the Bahujan Samaj Party has fielded Rakesh Gamit.
Two independents are also contesting from the seat.
Congress candidate Punabhai Gamit asserted that Christians are not likely to vote for the BJP under any circumstances, and the community from the region stands firmly with him and his party.
"The Christians are with the Congress. They will never vote for the BJP, even if their local religious leaders appeal to them to do so," he said.
There are 88,000 voters from the Gamit community, 67,000 from the Chaudhary community and 13,000 from the Konkani community. Christians from all three communities account for around 40,000 voters.
"The Gamit and Chaudhary communities are firmly with me. I have taken people from all the communities--Hindu, Muslims and Christians--together. I converted to Christianity in 1975. I have defeated BJP candidates for four times in a row, showing people are not ready to buy into their development claims," he claimed.
Sociologist Jani said Christian converts in the region remain wary of the BJP because of the party's attitude toward them and the discourse of "ghar wapsi".
To penetrate this Congress stronghold requires a different thinking, based on the very different social dynamics at play here, he said.
"When talking about Vyara, the presence of Christian community can be felt in every single village. Not every member of a family is necessarily a Christian. A father can be a Hindu tribal and his son a Christian convert. This makes the social dynamics complicated. Therefore, a party cannot address the head of the household to elicit votes of all the family members," Jani said.
Making inroads in this mixed family structure requires a different thinking, he said.
At the same time, the Congress's approach of keeping the marginalised sections together helped it gain more seats in the tribal areas in 2017 when compared to the BJP, he said.
"This might have made the BJP think differently by taking into account the local phenomenon. The area has seen the influence of Christianity since the very beginning, and nearly every village has a church which also serves as a meeting point on Sundays," he said.
"The BJP has already tapped into the anti-Muslim feelings of Hindu voters, but as far as tribals are concerned, one's tribal status does not go away even when he/she converts to Christianity. One can address him/her with two identities--tribal and Christian, influencing both the communities," he said.