VADGAM: It had seemed foolproof. A Congress constituency that had defied the BJP wave for several Assembly elections, with a sitting Congress MLA and a large population of Dalits and Muslims that could be expected to vote for Independent candidate Jignesh Mevani who has been struggling for justice and unity of these communities since the Una atrocity where Dalits were stripped and beaten for skinning a cow.

But as soon as we entered Vadgam we realised that the going was not going to be smooth for Mevani. In fact at this moment, ten days before polling in this Assembly constituency he is barely known in the villages and has yet to start his campaign in full earnest. Mevani was a little late in deciding to contest the polls, and claiming this seat that had a sitting Congress legislator Manibhai Vaghela who was withdrawn then by the party at the last moment. Mevani is now contesting the elections from this reserved seat as an Independent candidate with Congress support.

This should have worked but it has not. For one, the Congress party has disappeared from view. The workers are not visible and the local Gujarat leaders --- angry with Rahul Gandhi who intervened personally to ensure that Mevani was given the seat --- have decided to stay away. So Mevani and his rather small team at the moment have been left to fend for themselves, in a constituency where they still have to familiarise themselves with the routes, with the local people, with the key players.

We found small groups of Mevani supporters sitting at what was the Congress office in Vadgam without a single worker from the main party around. The young men who were waiting to start the campaign were not particularly happy with the Congress party for deserting them, with the seniors realising that the Congress had decided on non-cooperation and left them to fend for themselves. The workers were mostly activists, with no political knowledge of how to fight and win an election. They were waiting for Mevani who was on his way back from Ahmedabad, and the publicity material that they were hopeful would break the ice with the voters.

And ice it was. No one spoken to knew Mevani. He was referred to by Dalits and Muslims across several villages that The Citizen team visited as just an “Independent”, a candidate they did not know, a person whose name they were not sure of, from the Saurashtra region who was not from the area, and “will not stay here” if elected. For other communities, he was against the Hindu dharm. And why? Because he said that if had a choice he would marry his sister to a Muslim. And that he supposedly said, “Modi ho ya Gai, keh do usko bye bye.” And this was recounted to us, very seriously by one young man with the others in the group nodding sagely.

Mevani’s team is positive that this will change when the campaign begins. But they have just a week really to get themselves known in this constituency that is clearly a Congress hub. Almost everyone, cutting across castes, said that if the Congress had fielded a candidate he would have won. And now? "Now we do not know, it seems the BJP will win," seemed to be an emerging consensus with several Muslims also of the same view. The perception is that the Congress party is supporting three “independents” and hence “we do not know who will win.” This is, of course,not the case, but the electorate here seems to believe this rumour. However, there is a second independent candidate who will give trouble to Mevani, being of Congress pedigree and a Dalit. In that his father was Daulat Bhai Parmar, a Congress MLA from Vadgam and he is better known in the area than the dynamic and courageous Mevani.

Vadgam seems to be currently suffering from a Congress hangover, with almost every one spoken to insisting that the party should have fielded a candidate. The situation would not have been so difficult for Mevani had the Congress organisation not deserted him, and instead the workers had fanned out across the constituency to embrace him as their candidate, and clear the confusion of three independents. Currently no one is speaking for Mevani, that places him basically at the same level as the rebel party candidate who is, however, better known, and comes from the area.

There is of course a shortage of money with Mevani relying on crowd sourcing to raise funds. He has elicited a good response of course, but given the current expenses of an election the money is so short that the election managers have had to tell the local dhaba to charge the workers and others in the campaign separately. This is of course an honest election, but in the hurly burly of the campaign against powerful contenders like the BJP, this has become yet another handicap for Mevani who has to actually spend more than he probably had bargained for, in introducing himself to the voters before pushing the campaign forward.

The BJP is having a field day, as it seems to have been given this constituency on a platter with Mevani’s candidature. He can be saved by the Congress party that needs to immediately step in and ensure this seat is not lost; and by his own campaign to convince the voters that he is different from others, more committed, more resolute and above all he is not an outsider, but here to stay.

A very tough contest for the Dalit leader who has come a long way away from Una to contest from the rural reserved constituency. His was to have been a direct fight with the BJP --- with the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party both withdrawing candidates to leave the coast clear for Mevani. But the BJP rumour mill is at work to break the traditional Congress vote into pieces with the Muslims worried about the Independent candidates, the Dalits not very comfortable with a candidate they have been told will not stay, and the other backwards being told he is anti-Hindu.

(Photograph GAYETI SINGH)