In a blow to Congress, the party lost Mendarda taluka panchayat in Junagadh district as its two members, including taluka panchayat president Labhu Chavda defected to the BJP and the ruling party lost election to the post of president. Junagadh is one the districts where Congress has done well in recent elections but the loss of taluka panchayat comes just months ahead of state Assembly elections.
Congress had wrested away Mendarda taluka panchayat from the BJP in the general election held for the panchayat in December 2015. The party had won nine out of 16 seats in the panchayat body. The BJP had managed to win seven seats. After returning to power, the Congress had made Chavda the president of the panchayat. However, she resigned as the president on 19th of the last month and joined the BJP. Shantilal Rakholiya, the chairman of executive committee of the taluka panchayat also later defected to the BJP.
After Chavda resigned, Vinu Khunt was appointed as the acting president and notification was issued for holding election for the vacant post of the president. On the day of election on Friday, the BJP fielded turncoat Chavda as its candidate. On the other hand, Congress nominated Bhanu Kachhadiya as its candidate.
The voting process began at a special meeting of the taluka panchayat and Khunt presided over the proceedings. However, Congress members protested saying they would not participate in the voting till Rakholiya was presented at the meeting. Amid the din, Khunt left his seat saying he would not act as the presiding officer.
After that, as per the order of district development officer of Junagadh, Mendarda sub-divisional magistrate Jayesh Mayatra took over as the presiding officer. The voting took place even as the Congress members boycotted the election. Eventually, Chavda polled eight votes while Congress candidate Kachhadiya drew a blank. Consequently, the presiding officer declared Chavda the winner.
When asked if the due process was followed at the election, the SDM said: “The election is completely valid. Due process was followed. If somebody didn’t vote, it was their decision. The election was held as per the rules of state election commission.”
The Congress conceded defeat but accused BJP of sabotage. “Top BJP leaders flexed their money and muscles power for sabotaging Congress. They used every trick and made our members to defect,” Harshad Ribadiya, president of Junagadh district unit of Congress told The Indian Express over phone.
However, the BJP refuted the charge. “The two Congress members who joined the BJP did out of their free will. Apparently, they had compatibility issue with their party after the election in 2015. This is one step towards making Junagadh free from Congress,” Junagadh district BJP unit chief Kirit Patel said.
Asked if the BJP had struck any deal with Chavda and Shantilal for changing their camp as the party had made her its candidate for election of president, Patel said, “No prior offer was made. The decision to make her the candidate was taken unanimously. She will remain president of the panchayat for a year.”
Meanwhile, sources claimed that the Congress lost control due to an internal undertaking struck in 2015. “The party had nominated Chavda and made her president in 2015 on the condition that she will resign after 16 months and another candidate will get the chance to be president for the reminder 16 months of the first half of the five year term of the board. But Chavda wanted to continue in the chair of president. As Congress didn’t agree, she changed loyalty,” claimed a source.
This is a major blow to Congress in Junagadh. The party had swept all seven taluka panchayats, including Mendarda, and Junagadh district panchayat in 2015. But the loss of Mendarda suggests the ground has started slipping from the underneath the Congress with just a few months ahead of state Assembly elections due later this year.
In an indication of further trouble for the party, a no-confidence notice was given against president of Keshod taluka panchayat on Friday. While Patel claimed five Congress members were set to defect to the BJP, Ribadiya exuded confidence that the party will manage to see off the dissent.
Besides controlling all taluka panchayats and the district panchayat, Congress holds three out of five Assembly seats in the district.