Surat, Dec. 5: “Vote for the Hand and use your hand to press the button (of the electronic voting machine) on December 12 in such a way that the BJP feels the current and gets the shock of its life,” Shankersinh Vaghela tells the crowds gathered at the Vanita Vishram Griha grounds in this city, known for its diamond polishing and textile industry. He is warming up the crowd for Sonia Gandhi.
“I keep telling my BJP friends that they should not lie. But look at their chief minister — in order to deny the party ticket to a colleague he lied even about his own health and went to hospital feigning illness,” the Gujarat Congress president says. The crowd guffaws knowing fully well that he was referring to the Harin Pandya episode.
Vaghela is no rabble-rouser. He speaks in a leisurely, avuncular style, telling people that there has been “no sukh (happiness) during the BJP rule but only dukh (pain). No shanti (peace and security) but only ashanti (turmoil). No samriddhi (progress) but only asalaamati (insecurity).”
He knows water, electricity and unemployment are major issues in south Gujarat. He, thus, claims that the Congress has the best water resources experts with it who would help find a permanent solution to Gujarat’s water problems. Enough electricity would be produced and supplied to the farmers at subsidised rates on the pattern of Maharashtra. The Congress, he claims, has plans for overcoming unemployment. “Our Hand (the Congress symbol) is the hand of sukh (happiness), shanti (peace and security) and samriddhi (progress),” he says inverting the BJP’s slogan.
The unmentioned issue is communalism. “Turmoil” and “insecurity” is the closest that Vaghela came to referring to the organised communal riots in Gujarat and the subsequent communalisation of the state’s politics by the BJP.
“Godhra ke bare mein bol (Speak about Godhra),” says an unimpressed young man in the audience to nobody in particular. However, Vaghela’s strategy seems to be to address local and general economic issues rather than take a position on the communal question. It is left to Sonia to bring the ‘unmentionable’ to the fore.
She begins by castigating the BJP for economic mismanagement, for lack of a clear perspective on development, and for ignoring the weaker sections.
Surat, with its thriving businesses and an amalgam of population from different parts of the country, she says, symbolised the social unity of India. She is not wrong as of the 30 lakh people who live in Surat, nearly 20 lakh are immigrants from Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Maharashtra.
However, she then goes on to say: “Economic development requires peace and goodwill in the country. It requires that those in government should have a clear economic perspective and that they try and ease the problems of the people. ….This government has shown that it is not with you; it does not feel your pain and it has no sympathy for the Adivasis, Harijans and other weaker sections of society.” South Gujarat has the largest concentration of Adivasis in the state.
“Godhra ke bare mein bol (Speak about Godhra),” mutters the same youngster, who increasingly begins to look like a disrupter sent by the political rivals of the Congress.
As if on cue, Sonia lashes out at the BJP’s communal politics and reminds the crowd that this is the land of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel; of non-violence and peace. She tells the people that they have a real choice to make. “Will Gujarat choose the path of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel and nation-builders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, or will it become a toy to be used and misused by those in power'” she asks.
Contrasting the BJP’s communal politics with its lack of governance in the state, she says: “They are scared that you might hold them accountable for their misdeed if they talk of governance. That is why they are raising these (divisive) issues and using a political idiom which would be unacceptable in any civilised society.”
“Chalo yaar (Let’s go),” says the youngster obsessed with Godhra to a friend and they get up and leave.
Sonia, too, is winding down her speech. “The issue in this election is clear — which party can give good governance'” she asks rhetorically.
Good governance, she says, cannot be given “by those responsible for corruption and maladministration; those who were responsible for cooperative bank collapse, which plunged the lives of lakhs into hopelessness and misery.” Nearly 18 lakh depositors lost their life’s savings in the cooperative bank scams in Gujarat and BJP leaders from this region have been implicated in them.
As the audience streams out, Lokesh Maharaj, a real estate agent, says: “There is a real fight here this time. What will matter is whether all those who came here today will also turn out to cast their vote.”
I.C. Barjatya, a textile trader from Rajasthan settled in Surat, says: “Earlier the presence of Congress in this city was negligible. This is certainly an improvement.”
And Mahboob Ahmed Ansari, who had left his bakery to come and listen to Sonia, declares: “Even a child knows that the BJP is playing the communal card. Using the Babri Masjid, they ruled for 10 years, and now, they are trying to use Godhra.”