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Urban pin-up is villain in villages
- Economic issues overshadow Modi’s pet themes in crucial belt

Surendranagar, Dec. 2: In a cemented square near a bus stop in Nayara village in Jamnagar district, four men were engrossed in a card game, oblivious to a voice blaring from a passing auto-rickshaw, urging people to attend a public meeting in neighbouring Dhroll to be addressed by Union minister Pramod Mahajan.

The card-sharps were Yunus Walli, Dhirubhai Bikhabhai, Shantuba Doruba Jadeja and Rangdesh Ganga Patel.

Before a question could be asked, they said, as if in anticipation: “You will ask about Godhra and Akshardham. But what you see here is bhaichara (brotherhood), which has never been broken.”

The names were revealed along with caste and religion to buttress the point. One was a Muslim, the other a Rajput and the remaining two, Patels.

“In the last election, the BJP pleaded with us to give them a second chance. We did. Then Godhra, Akshardham and Ahmedabad happened and we felt betrayed. We know if the BJP is given another chance, the bonhomie you see here can get shattered,” they said.

The image stuck while travelling through rural Saurashtra, where Hindu peasants are no less devout (every village has at least a couple of temples) or particularly secular. But issues such as water, electricity, poor procurement prices for the cash crops and an erosion in the powers of local bodies had mostly obliterated Hindutva, terrorism and nationalism — the BJP’s hobby horses —

from voters’ consciousness.

An occasional word of praise could be heard for chief minister Narendra Modi. Hasmukh Ranani of Aatkot village outside Rajkot said: “The BJP is strong because of Modi’s Hindutvawaad.

But critics were just as vocal. “What fight against terrorism is Modi talking about' For three months (after the post-Godhra violence), his government did not have the guts to allow state buses to pass through Juapura (a Muslim-dominated pocket of Ahmedabad). They were re-routed through the satellite area. If the BJP thinks it can pass off dirty water as Ganga jal (water), people are not going to get fooled,” said Surendranagar district cooperative bank manager Anubhai L. Shah.

The unanimous feeling is that the dominance of economic issues in Saurashtra, which accounts for 58 of the state’s 182 Assembly seats, will prove expensive to the BJP. Even a Central minister from the region admitted that the party could lose between eight and 10 of the 52 seats it had bagged last time.

“The Congress is gaining because of the BJP’s mistakes,” said Raghu Manjibhai Patel of Ghanshyampur in Surendranagar.

No caste — from the land-owning Patels and Rajputs to the Dalits — was left untouched. “The BJP government has crippled us because khadi, which was our source of livelihood, is gone,” said Jagdish, a Dalit of Ghanshyampur.

Rasik Patel, a member of the Rajkot zilla parishad, complained that groundnut oil was selling at more than twice the price last year.

Modi, Hindutva’s new pin-up boy in Gujarat’s cities and towns, is a villain in its villages. “Keshubhai Patel (his predecessor) was a khedut neta (farmers’ leader). Modi is a vyapaari ka neta (traders’ leader),” said Patel.

Among the litany of grouses against the chief minister are:

* The boasts on the release of Narmada water in drought-afflicted Saurashtra are “hollow” because Rajkot city is, reportedly, the only beneficiary. “In any case, why should Modi hog the credit for Narmada when the project’s inauguration was done by Jawaharlal Nehru 40 years ago'” asked Upendra Vekaria, the manager of the Jasdan cooperative bank in Rajkot district.

* Erosion in local bodies’ powers. Surendraganar zilla panchayat member Moti Rabari mentioned how a vital sector such as education was affected by the centralisation of power in Gandhinagar. “Earlier, talukas and zilla panchayats used to construct primary schools for Rs 1 lakh each. Now the same thing is given to private trusts and directly monitored by the chief minister’s handpicked officials. Such schools are out of bound for our children,” he said.

* Udayan Trivedi, an advocate of Babra (Amreli district), said Modi’s Gram Mitra project, which envisaged inducting five graduates from every village at Rs 1,000 per month to overcome the unemployment crisis, never took off. “It has left hordes of angry young men,” he said.

* Another much-publicised political move described as “samaras” – promising a grant upwards of Rs 50,000 to villages in which sarpanches and other local representatives were unanimously chosen instead of being elected – allegedly fell flat because officials did not release the money in several cases.

Little wonder that Mahajan’s swipes at Musharaff, Sonia Gandhi and Shankersinh Vaghela made little sense to an electorate that hopes the next election will bring in Narmada water and fetch a decent price for their cotton, sesame, groundnut and wheat crops.

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