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SEEMA MUSTAFA | 22 OCTOBER, 2017

Gujarat Noose Tightens, But Around Whose Neck? Thakor, Mewani, Patel In Midst of BJP-Congress Face Off

SEEMA MUSTAFA


NEW DELHI: After the Central Election Commission established itself as biased by delaying the expected announcement of the Gujarat polls, the heat has risen several notches in the poll bound state. The Congress giving a tough fight after a long gap has locked horns with the BJP, with both trying to break the other’s back as the electorate shuffles nervously between the two poles.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, blissfully dismissive of the criticism is continuing his quick project clearing visits to the state, with the week expected to deliver a bonanza of goodies for Gujarat including a Rs 615 crore ‘ro ro---you guessed it, a roll off and roll on---ferry service that he has already referred to as his ‘dream project’ as it is expected to benefit the diamond cutting industry of Surat. And yes, Surat has been witness to the biggest anti GST rallies in Gujarat in recent weeks.This will be his fifth visit to Gujarat in two months.

In the midst of the hectic activity, and contributing to it are Gujarat’s three young leaders--Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakor--- who are in the thick of the BJP vs Congress feud. All three had been campaigning for the past years against the BJP, building steady support at a time when there was little sign of the Congress party on the ground amongst the Patidar, Dalit, and other Backward communities respectively.

Interestingly, the BJP unable to convince Hardik Patel to switch sides despite imprisonment and exile, is now focusing on his aides with two of his recognised members leaving to join the ruling party. Reshma Patel who had been very vocal in a recent campaign organised by Mewani in attacking the BJP in strong language has joined whom she had criticised so vehemently. Varun Patel also has left Hardik. Both have described him as a Congress agent. The 24 year old has hit back with, “The centipede will continue to run even if some of his legs break. People are with me, and I will continue to fight for them.”

Saurashtra, that PM Modi will be targeting as well during his visit next week, is a key area for both the BJP and the Congress as it is home to a large population of the Patidar community, and 58 of the state’s 182 Assembly seats. In the last elections the BJP had won 37 seats, with the Congress holding 16 seats in this region.

The Congress party has for once moved out of an arrogant mould under Rahul Gandhi and a younger team, to reach out to all the young and old leaders. The result has been a positive response with Mewani and Patel also not ruling out the possibility of accepting the party’s offer to contest the elections on its symbol. There has been no outright rejection, just expression of caution with Mewani telling reporters that he is determined to defeat the BJP in these as well as the parliamentary elections, and whether this will require him to join the Congress or not will be determined by the Dalit organisations.

Hardik Patel too is categorical about his opposition to the BJP, and told reporters, “"I am not here to contest elections and my age does not permit it, but other PAAS (Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti) members are free to do so." He added, however that “the Congress would have to first convince how they would meet our demand for reservations to the Patidars, otherwise it is only an election-oriented promise, It is time to throw out the BJP in Gujarat.”

The Congress has stated since that it has no problem about meeting Patel’s demand for reservations. Gujarat Congress president Bharatsinh Solanki has already announced, "we stand by our proposal of keeping 49 per cent reservations for OBC, SC/ST intact and passing a resolution in the Assembly once in power to provide for 20 per cent reservations to other communities. We will send the resolution to BJP-controlled Parliament and impress upon them to pass our resolution.”

Thakor, set to join the Congress now, has been the most enthusiastic of the three in his interaction with reporters maintaining, “unemployment is a huge problem with lakhs of youngsters without jobs, more than 74,000 farmers are neck deep in debt, illicit liquor flows freely in the state despite prohibition and education and health sectors are in a total mess.”

"Me, Hardik Patel and Jignesh are all going to join hands with the Congress party to defeat the BJP,” he said recently.

Congress Gujarat president Bharatsinh Solanki has invited the Aam Aadmi Party, Janata Dal(U) whose sole member supported Ahmad Patel’s bid for the Rajya Sabha earlier, and the Nationalist Congress Party that had voted along with the BJP in the RS elections, to form a broad front against the BJP. The Congress decision to cobble together all forces mirrors the BJP’s approach in UP where it stitched up an alliance of all caste based groups to come to power in the Assembly earlier this year. .

"Congress vijay yatra has begun. This yatra is moving towards over 125 seats. We want to invite the important factors in Gujarat these days - Hardik, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani - to come and join Congress in an endeavour to throw out BJP," Solanki said at a press conference.

Whether this will work or not remains to be seen. Congress leaders point to a an anti-BJP environment triggered by demonetisation and GST but admit that Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally holds sway amongst the voters. Besides, there is genuine worry in the Opposition camp about the efforts to further communalise the situation, to a point where it overshadows the economic issues. As a Congress leader said, “the campaign that if we come to power the Muslims will rule again is already moving fast in polarised Ahmedabad.” He was hopeful that it would be blunted in the rural areas.

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