GAYETI SINGH | 7 DECEMBER, 2017
On The Campaign Trail: The Gujarat Election, In Photos
A multipart series on the Gujarat voter and trends. The story, in photos.
MEHSANA/VADGAM/AHMEDABAD: (This is the fourth story in a multi part series that focuses on the voter in Gujarat. The Citizen examines key trends in the Gujarat Polls, speaking directly to the people)
The Citizen team traveled through north-central Gujarat, stopping to speak directly to the voter in a bid to analyse key factors at play in the poll bound state. This election is complicated by the rise of three young leaders -- OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, and Patidar leader Hardik Patel. We traveled from Ahmedabad to Mehsana and Vadgam, centering our journey on the new divisions at play in the BJP -ruled state.
Mehsana is a Patel dominated constituency located about 75 kilometers from Ahmedabad. It is here Patidar leader Hardik Patel’s andolan first began. The young leader has been banned from entering Mehsana by the Gujarat High Court. Pictured, a small tea and paan stall on the outskirts of Mehsana’s central market.
Gujarati hospitality ensures that we’re invited to sit for a cup of tea, and -- as is typical on the road in India -- a small crowd quickly gathers.
Desai Babubhai and Bhupendar Panchar pose for the camera. They tell us that the Patel vote is seemingly divided in the area, with 50 percent behind Hardik Patel, and the other 50 still very much with the BJP. The two men are in agreement as they say, “the BJP will win, but the Congress will improve its position.”
Mehsana is a fairly well-developed part of Gujarat, with wide roads and large buildings. Pictured, a small cycle repair shop near the central market. The sitting MLA is the BJP’s Nitinbhai Patel, who is contesting this time around as well. Nitin bhai clearly commands a strong presence in the area.
Inside the Patidar-dominated interiors of the central market, the divisions in the Patel vote become clearer. Ishwar Bhai Patel, pictured extreme right, is the most vocal, and very angry with the BJP. “This was a BJP area, but it’s now a Congress seat,” he says. “Parvartan ka mood hai (there’s a mood for change)... After twenty years, the Patels will bring a Congress government… mark my words, change is imminent.”
The Patel vote is clearly fractured in the area, with the younger Patels we speak to throwing their weight behind Hardik Patel. “All my friends are with him,” says a young man in the area. A group of older men sitting nearby shake their heads. “There’s no point explaining things to them,” they say, clearly still with the ruling party.
Located 80 or so kilometers from Mehsana, is the assembly seat of Vadgam. Vadgam is considered a “safe seat” for the Congress, with the party winning three of the last four assembly elections here. Sitting MLA Manibhai Vaghela won by 21,000 votes, but has been asked to vacate the seat for Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who announced his candidature from Vadgam on November 27.
Our first stop is Majadar village in Vadgam. We chat with a large crowd, who tell us that had the Congress put up a candidate, they would have won. We’re taken aback by the fact that almost no one in the crowd knows Jignesh Mevani’s name, referring to him instead as “apaksh (independent).” It turns out that three independent candidates are contesting this seat, with Ashvin Parmar -- son of a former Congress leader and a local Dalit himself -- threatening to cut into Mevani’s vote. The BJP too has fielded a former Congressman, Vijay Chakravarti.
Vadgam has a large Muslim representation, with the community making up 25.3 percent of the vote. Dalits are about 16.2 percent of the population here. These demographics are why Mevani chose this seat, but the presence of additional independent candidates has complicated things.
Mukesh, pictured above, says things are tough for Mevani, as the Congress vote is bound to get fractured, with the BJP standing to gain. Mukesh also tells us about whatsapp messages that are being circulated, highlighting Mevani’s statement that if he had two sisters, he would marry one of them off to a Muslim. “I don’t know how well this will settle with the Hindu community here,” Mukesh offers.
An additional factor complicating things for Mevani is the absence of the local Congress, who seem upset that a sitting MLA was pulled to make way for an outsider. The Congress office in the area has been stripped off any identification. Mevani’s team sits inside, alone, with not a single Congress worker in sight.
While the Congress faces challenges from upset party workers, the BJP has its own set of problems. In Ahmedabad’s Maninagar, while searching for the elusive Shweta Brahmbhatt -- the Congress candidate whose selection prompted party workers to stage a protest -- we are directed to Sudhir Saini, a local political man.
Saini runs a flower stall in the area, and is busy with morning customers. “I’m with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad,” Saini tells us, “I know nothing about this election.” “There has been no instruction from the top to get involved. This might change, there are few days still left, but as of now, we are not involved in the campaign at all.” “Perhaps the RSS is angry with PM Modi,” Saini offers as an explanation. “I don’t know, I just do as I’m told.”
Maninagar is Prime Minister Modi’s former constituency, and Saini tells us that the Congress doesn’t have a shot in this area. Amit, a well dressed business professional comes up to buy flowers. “The Congress puts up dummy candidates from here. This time there’s some Shweta; last time there was former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt’s wife. They know they can’t win this seat, so they don’t bother trying.”
Having spent a few days on the road in this part of Gujarat, we can’t help but notice that the communal card is not at the forefront this election. “The communal card is like an overused condom,” an Ahmedabad-based activist says. “People are sick of it.”
This doesn’t mean that the electorate isn’t polarised. In Ahmedabad, the Jamalpur-Khadiya assembly constituency is a case in point. Jamalpur sticks out like a sore thumb in the Gujarat Model of Development story, completely at odds with the the glitzier parts of Ahmedabad.
It’s a Muslim majority area, that was combined with neighbouring Khadiya in 2008 after delimitation. Prior to delimitation, the Congress had won this seat almost every time. In 2012, Bhushan Bhatt of the BJP won from the Jamalpur-Khadiya seat.
This time, however, Jamalpur’s locals are hopeful of a Congress victory. Razia and her friends tell us just that as they make fresh rotis at a corner stall. “The Congress seems to have a good shot,” Razia says.
At the local Congress office, party workers tell us that in 2012, two Muslim candidates had cut into each other’s vote. “This time, only Imran Khedawala is standing,” they said, naming the Congress candidate. “Chances are good.”
The mood in neighbouring Khadiya, where tiny streets give way to a temple, is entirely different.
BJP party flags are visible at every corner, and the general consensus is that the BJP will win. Hindu deities adorn the storefronts of this area, with the BJP’s Bhushan Bhatt popular amongst the locals.
Bharat Patel runs a shop here, and says that the Patel vote is the only complicating factor this election. He says he will vote for the BJP because of Bhatt, but in parts of Gujarat, Patels are angry with the party and there will be a protest vote.
A group of temple workers sit nearby. “The Congress will improve its position,” they say, “but the BJP will win.” “The Congress has attached itself to all these andolans, and although Patels and other communities are talking, how they’ll vote in the end is anyone’s guess.”
All said and done, there’s a perception of a fight. Whether that will translate into additional numbers for the Congress, remains to be seen. Interestingly, across this part of Gujarat, the response to Rahul Gandhi has been positive. Even staunch BJP supporters admit he is working hard, and the ridicule and jokes have given way to serious political regard. This, if sustained, is perhaps a victory in itself.
(PHOTOGRAPHS by GAYETI SINGH)