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Far from Delhi backroom, Patel fights Patel’s battle

Dozens of cars stood parked in this usually desolate village on the outskirts of Ankleshwar. On a narrow lane, a crowd of villagers, many of them Muslims, had queued up outside a white-and-green house with arches.

After all, they could hardly visit Willingdon Crescent in faraway Delhi to call on one of India’s most politically powerful men.

Kaale aavjo, hoon kahish tamne (come tomorrow, I will tell you),” Ahmed Patel told the insistent crowd, virtually falling over him.

Patel appeared more of a village leader at his ancestral home in Piraman, in Bharuch constituency, than a political manager that he is in Delhi. It was afternoon on April 21 and time for a “darbar” for voters — a crowd different from Delhi where Congress leaders are known to reach Patel’s official residence unquestioningly if summoned even at 2 in the night.

But Patel, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, was in a hurry to attend a rally. Barely nine days were left before Bharuch, Patel’s home constituency, would vote in these elections.

For four days, Patel had criss-crossed the Hindu, Muslim and tribal pockets in the constituency. He had later travelled to Valsad to prepare for Sonia’s visit and remained present at his party chief’s successful rally on April 23. The former Bharuch MP also addressed rallies in north Gujarat, one more area where the Congress wants to prove a point in this election.

Dressed in his trademark white kurta, the Rajya Sabha MP has been focusing on his home turf that had never disappointed the Congress till 1989. Patel had won Bharuch thrice — in 1977, 1980 and 1984 — but then lost it twice. This time, the mild-mannered Gujarati is back on his home turf, planning the strategy for what sources said was a personal challenge to wrest the seat from the BJP’s Mansukhbhai Vasava, a four-time tribal MP.

The Congress has fielded a Hindu candidate, Jayesh Patel alias Jayeshkaka, although minorities account for a sizeable chunk of the population in Bharuch. “The minority community itself wanted a non-minority candidate this time,” Patel told The Telegraph. “He is head of the transporters’ associations and other groups. Of course, he has lost elections earlier but that’s fine, we will win.”

Jayeshkaka is popular for being helpful while Vasava carries the baggage of poor performance over the past 25 years. But some voters who said they were not satisfied with Vasava also argued that they wanted Narendra Modi to become Prime Minister.

Patel has been campaigning across Bharuch but had visited Vadodara just once since landing in Gujarat last week. Asked about the Congress’s prospects in Vadodara, Modi’s constituency, Patel said his party would put up a “good contest” before correcting himself. “But we are fighting to win,” he said.

The result in Vadodara may be a foregone conclusion but even BJP leaders concede that Madhusudan Mistry, whom the Congress has fielded against the BJP mascot, may not garner less than 20 per cent of the vote share.

On April 20, Patel was in Dediapada — a Vasava-dominated town in the east that still has a Congress MLA — where he argued how the BJP-led state government had fooled tribal people with so-called tribal-friendly schemes. Over the decades, however, BJP cadres have entrenched themselves in the tribal belt that stretches from Panchmahal in northeast Gujarat to the Dangs in the south. Once the bastion of the Congress, sections of Bharuch’s urban Muslims are also known to have voted for the BJP in local elections.

Jayeshkaka has lost Assembly elections thrice earlier and Congress workers are puzzled why a minority candidate was not chosen. Among the 14 contestants in the fray in Bharuch, seven are Independents, three of them Muslims.

Congress workers allege the Independents are a BJP “trick” to split votes and say their party has bungled in distributing tickets. “You had to have a minority candidate from Bharuch and a Koli Patel instead of a minority one in Navsari,” said Shaukat Munshi, an old Congress loyalist from Surat.

The Congress has fielded Maksudbeg Mirza from Navsari, south of Surat, against sitting BJP MP C.R. Patil.

Still, Munshi believes that Patel will wrest his home turf for another Patel. The wait has been far too long.