The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Out of palace, not ivory tower

Nadiad, April 12: Shubhangini Raje Gaekwad peers at the glass of water she is offered at the house of a BJP supporter. “I want clean water. I can’t drink this,” she says.

Her host, the woman of the house who stands by with a bottle in her hand, says: “Maharaniji, this is mineral water.”

Gaekwad, the BJP candidate from the Kheda Lok Sabha seat in Gujarat, is clearly out of sync with the people she is trying to win over.

They may well hold this against her, more so when they compare the former maharani with her popular rival, Dinsha Patel of the Congress, who has won the constituency since 1996.

But Gaekwad doesn’t think so, not when she has the royal lineage of the former Baroda state to flaunt.

First, she questions Patel’s competence as a parliamentarian “who did not ask a single question in Parliament”.

Then she falls back on family. “The civic amenities that you are enjoying here today were provided by the Gaekwads 50 years ago. The Gaekwads have come back to serve you again. I am one of you,” the 59-year-old wife of former Maharaja Ranjitsingh Gaekwad tells the people.

Her audience is unmoved. She is an imported candidate imposed on us, say the residents of Palana village, once part of the Gaekwad fief. “We do not know her. She hardly knows us. This is the first time she is visiting us,” a villager says.

Try telling that to the former maharani. “My family name matters,” she says. Besides, the Congress MP did not represent the constituency properly, she adds.

The people of Kheda town do blame Patel for shifting the district headquarters to Nadiad. “People here strongly feel that Dinsha Patel has robbed them of their status,” says Manubhai Patel, a resident.

Kheda lost its eminence during the Shankersinh Vaghela regime.

Patel may have already paid for it, failing to make a mark as an Assembly candidate from the Kheda region in the last polls. This was the only defeat in the Congress veteran’s political career that has seen uninterrupted Assembly victories from 1975-95.

But he connects with the people, as testified by a member of Gaekwad’s party. Patel knows everybody by name and anybody can meet him any time, says Jasubhai Solanki, a taluka panchayat member of the BJP.

Other political rivals further concede that Patel has used his MP development fund in every village in his constituency.

Prafulbhai Patel, the Palana village sarpanch, puts it simply. The “maharani”, he says, just cannot beat her rival in the popularity stakes.

Gaekwad’s outsider tag is not helped by her apparent discomfiture in dealing with the heat and dust of the gruelling campaign schedule.

She gives her party’s local MLA Pankaj Desai some anxious moments when she complains of giddiness and nausea minutes before a street-corner meeting at Nadiad.

Even as she says the party workers need not be worried, Desai gets busy engaging the crowd, explaining why they should elect the former maharani and not Patel.

Once Gaekwad feels better, she reels out the contribution of her family to development work in the former Baroda state and then goes after her rival — all in five minutes flat.

The BJP welcomed Gaekwad and her son Samarjitsingh into its fold late in March, perhaps in a bid to field a Kshatriya candidate against Patel. She dutifully harps on her royal lineage in Kshatriya-dominated villages.

But nothing can convince the villagers that she would remain approachable once she is elected. Gaekwad, who lives in faraway Mumbai and Vadodara, promises to open offices at Kheda and Nadiad.

BJP campaign in-charge Amrutbhai helpfully says that Vadodara would be accessible in 20 minutes once the four-lane express highway is completed.

The road to victory, however, is long and arduous as local religious sects with considerable mass following are no longer backing the BJP. The chiefs of the Swaminarayan sect and the Santaram temple in Nadiad are rumoured to have blessed the Congress candidate.

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