The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Neck-and-neck race in rich centre

Nadiad (Central Gujarat), Dec. 10: The central parts of Gujarat will eventually decide whether casteism can defeat communalism in this state or not. It is here that the BJP hopes to make up for some of the losses it might suffer elsewhere in the state.

Traditionally the Congress has tended to do well in this region. In the old Kheda district — now divided into Anand and Nadiad — out of the 17 Assembly seats, the Congress won 12 in the last Assembly election. But that was during normal circumstances.

Arvindbhai Patel heads eight cooperative institutions in Vaso village in Nadiad and is unapologetically pro-Congress. He feels: “It will be a 50-50 division of seats in Kheda this time.” This means that the BJP may improve upon its past record.

The dominant communities in Kheda are the Kshatriyas and the Patels. However, there is a significant presence of other communities like the Brahmins, Vaniyas, Dalits and Muslims. The richest community in the region, the Patels, are considered to be BJP supporters, though the Congress has also fielded a number of Patel candidates.

Kheda is one of the richest areas of Gujarat. It has close NRI-links — with someone from almost every family living abroad. Having witnessed the biggest and the most successful co-operative experiment in milk production, it is flush with money and is responsible for the glossy international image of Gujarat.

A sizeable portion of the agricultural surplus has gone into temple construction — the grandest temples of the Swaminarayan sect are found here.

“The people here have money but lag behind culturally. They do not feel pride in cultural advancement. They are well-read but they accept Swamis as God and worship them as such. Their faith is blind. No cultural and intellectual elite has emerged and therefore its impact on society is there,” explains Maneklal H. Patel, head of the department of Gujarati in Sardar Patel University, Vallbah Vidyanagar.

There was, however, no social or cultural change to sustain the economic transformation brought about by the cooperative movement. Thus, for example, after Govardhanram Tripathi, who wrote Saraswati Chandra, central Gujarat boasts of only a few writers of any consequence, except Ishwar Petlikar and the Dalit writer Joseph Makwan in recent times. It has also not produced any singer, dancer or cultural leader of consequence.

When other parts of India were witnessing Hindu reformist movements in the early and mid-nineteenth century, Gujarat saw the consolidation of the Swaminarayan sect.

“There was no Raja Rammohan Roy here. Instead the Swaminarayan sect was busy reaffirming Hindu orthodoxy both in terms of gender and caste. Although the sect started out in Saurashtra, central Gujarat was to become its bastion,” says Raja Kumar Hans, a historian at M.S. University in Vadodara.

Thus it is not surprising that the communal passions run high in the region. The anti-Muslim rioting earlier year has further polarised public opinion.

The big issues of roads, water and other infrastructure are virtually absent here as they are already in place. However, once a success story of the cooperative movement, people have been severely hit with the collapse of cooperative banks.

The issues of the growing unemployment, industrial sickness, access to the government machinery and corruption also agitate them. This time around, however, the BJP is trying to sweep them under the Hindutva carpet.

People talk of development being an issue but claim that so is “the safety of Hindus in their own country” important. Narendra Modi seems to be the role model of the youngsters. “Narendra Modi may not be a Patel, but he is a Hindu and so we support him,” says young Neeraj Patel of Uttarsanda.

His friend, Ripal Choksi, also in his early twenties, says: “We will vote for anyone who argues for the Hindu cause. The Muslims must start thinking of India as their motherland and not be loyal to Pakistan.”

It is surprising to hear Kantibhai Patel, a doctor of Vaso village, saying: “Godhra is the way to victory. If Godhra had not happened, it would not be an issue. However, we also don’t want India to become a Muslim-dominated country by 2085.”

The Muslim community here is equally determined to vote for the Congress. Mahboob Khan, a 68-year-old pensioner in Anand says: “We will vote for the Congress and face the consequences. What worse fate can await us' We are already dead. But I feel everyone is upset with the BJP and it will lose. The Kshatriya will not vote for it. The Patels will. And the Dalits and Christians will vote for the Congress.”

Jasbhai Rambhai Solanki of Daban village in Nadiad claims that he would vote for the Congress because “I want peace in Gujarat”.

But what about the Hindutva feeling in the region' “The public is two-faced about what they say and what they do. And you will see this on the election day. People voted for BJP in the name of Ram earlier. Do you think they will get fooled again'” he asks.

But which way will the results go' “I think the result will go in favour of individuals who have worked in their constituencies. People are tired of political parties,” says 88-year-old Mahendrabhai Desai, a veteran MLA of his time.

“This time, the BJP and the Congress might get equal number of seats in the Kheda area. Overall also, I don’t expect any party to get a clear majority in Gujarat this time,” says the veteran politician.

Manilal H. Patel says: “Do not expect any one party to wipe out the other in this area. It will be a close contest.”

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