Friday, January 4, 2013

Old warhorse fights lonely battle

(First published in The Pioneer dated December 3, 2012)


 From measured Ahmedabad to chaotic Rajkot, the contrast could not have been starker. Motorists drive like they are determined to cause an accident, and only at the last moment do they seem to get second thoughts and screech to a halt. It’s a wonder that the town does not register a road accident every minute. This aggression spills over to the political expressions of the residents as well. Unlike in Ahmedabad, where the people are open yet refined in presenting their opinions, the voters of Rajkot do not believe in needless sophistication. It’s the home town of Mr Keshubhai Patel, once among the BJP’s tallest leaders in Gujarat and now the party’s bitter rival who has floated his own outfit, the Gujarat Parivartan Party, to take on his former colleagues (and the Congress more by way of coincidence than design). It is here, in the town and the constituencies that fall within the district — and elsewhere in the Saurashtra region — that Mr Patel hopes to perform well. That’s the hope, but do the people see it that way?
It’s barely six in the morning, but there’s already a decent crowd outside a tea stall near the town’s bus terminus. Many of those who have gathered there are travellers, but there are also those that are residents of the town and are out on their morning walk. Some of them are armed with sticks to ward off stray dogs. As I broach the topic of the State Assembly election and suggest that Mr Patel could give the BJP a run for its money, an elderly gentleman picks the cue. “You think so?” he demands to know aggressively. When I hastily clarify that that was what the general impression appears to be, he calms down. “It’s true that Rajkot has been the centre of Keshubhai’s politics. But he is no longer relevant, at least in the town and nearby constituencies. The BJP is comfortably placed.” His companion chips in, but with a more tempered view. “Keshubhai got the Patel votes into the BJP kitty in the late 90s. That cannot be denied. But for the last decade or so beginning with Narendra Modi’s rise, he has remained a marginal player. Sections of the Patel community are still loyal to him. But by and large the Patels have come to identify with the BJP. Narendrabhai has taken care of them.”
It is precisely this analysis that Ahmedabad-based senior journalist Manas Dasgupta had offered to me a couple of days before I landed in Rajkot. Mr Dasgupta, who has reported on Gujarat’s politics for close to four decades now, believes that the Patel community “is no longer aligned with Mr Keshubhai Patel. The Patels are with Mr Modi because they feel secure in his regime. They think that, if the Congress or the GPP gains leverage in the State, they will lose influence to the other communities, particularly the Muslims.”
He does accept that, if not in Rajkot proper and contiguous constituencies, Mr Patel’s party will makes inroads in the rural constituencies of Saurashtra, but that will not amount to any serious dent in the BJP’s Patel vote-bank. “You have to remember that only a few sub-sects of the Patel community could vote for Mr Keshubhai Patel. Some months, a Patel conference which he had organised had turned out to be a tame affair with most of the influential Patel community leaders keeping away. Also, the Patels do not want to waste their vote on a party (the GPP) which has no chance of gaining power, I will be surprised if Mr Patel’s party wins more than 10 seats in all”, he says.
A non-resident Indian (or more appropriately, a non-resident Gujarati) paces furiously in the lobby of a hotel located on Jawahar Road in the town. Puffing at a cigarette and upset at having misplaced his lighter, he tells me that people realise the true worth of something after they have lost it and not when they have it. “Mil jaye to mitti hai, kho jaye to sona hai” — he hums the lines sung by Jagjit Singh. “Take the case of my lighter. Now that it’s gone, I miss it desperately when I have the urge to smoke.” Manish Bhatt (not his real name) is based in London and is in the insurance business. He is planning a return to India — and home State Gujarat — to promote the insurance sector. “With Narendra Modi as Chief Minister, the business community is confident of getting the right environment. I would not have considered relocating to Gujarat (Rajkot is his home town) if people like Keshubhai were in charge. I remember Keshubhai’s regime; the governance was in a complete mess, and decisions were being delayed.”
But not everyone in Rajkot agrees with that indictment. The owner of an electronic goods store believes that Mr Patel’s Government had performed well in the short duration that it had lasted. “He had to face great opposition from within the party. There was Shankarsinh Vaghela and his band of loyalists within the BJP constantly sniping at Keshubhai’s heels. Yet, he did provide a decent administration. No one can possibly forget that he had laid the foundations for the BJP’s rise in Gujarat.” But even the electronic goods vendor accepts that Mr Patel stands little chance of making a really big mark in the coming  |Assembly election.
The other setback that Mr Patel appears to face not just in Rajkot but apparently across Saurashtra too is that the Muslim voters are unlikely to back him (just as the majority of them are yet not ready to support Mr Modi), despite all the overtures which he has been making towards the community since his rebellion against the BJP. And, it’s not just Mr Dasgupta who holds that view. Voters in Junagadh believe similarly. A two-hour drive from Rajkot, Junagadh is a crumbling town, which clings to history in a desperate bid to maintain its dignity. Mr Modi’s development wave appears to have bypassed this little town. The spirit of happiness that one comes across in Ahmedabad and the element of happening that is evident in Rajkot, are replaced by a sense of resignation in Junagadh.
Outside the Family and Civil Court within the dilapidated gates (there are many in this historic town) that once formed part of an imposing fort, a paan vendor sells his wares in his tiny stall. Miniature images of Mecca and Medina adorn the walls of his stall. “Muslims here won’t back Keshubhai. They will go with the Congress. I am a Muslim and I will not vote for Keshubhai. And I will also not vote for the BJP. Narendrabhai’s Sadbhavna fast was a sham. Muslims of the State, and certainly of Junagadh, have not been impressed by that”, he claims emphatically. Mr Keshubhai Patel, he says, will do fairly well in the interiors of Junagadh. “But do not expect miracles from him. The Patels are no longer solidly behind him. The dominant Patels in rural Gujarat are firmly with the BJP”, he says, adding, “They are not concerned with issues of development. They’ll back any party that can contain the Muslim influence in the State.”
This opinion is seconded by a lawyer hanging around the court premises. That is why, he contends, BJP legislator Mahendra Mashroo will most likely win again. “Don’t ever forget; it’s not because he has done development work here. He will win because of the fear of Muslims. Of course, Mahendrabhai is also personally likeable”, the robed man says. As for the Gujarat Parivartan Party’s performance in its stronghold, he has this to say: “Keshubhai has influence in Saurashtra. You know he is himself contesting from nearby Visavadar constituency. But I doubt if that influence will convert into more than half a dozen seats for his party in the region. After all, even the BJP has a strong line-up of Patel candidates.”

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