On Monday, when the Congress wrested Mehsana municipality back from the BJP with the return of 10 renegade councillors, it was about more than regaining control of one municipality out of Gujarat’s 159.
It came close on the heels of the assembly elections in which the Congress ran the BJP close, winning 77 seats to the BJP’s 99 after having trailed 59-115 in 2012. Mehsana is also symbolically significant; it is the home district of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former chief minister Anandiben Patel and current Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel, elected from Mehsana, the assembly seat (out of seven in the district) that includes Mehsana municipality.
Mehsana is Gujarat’s 13th most populated city with 20.35 lakh residents, according to the government website. The majority of them Patidars, Mehsana has been a nerve centre of the Patidar quota agitation led by Hardik Patel. When Hardik’s organisation PAAS launched its agitation in 2015, the support was most visible in Mehsana district, apart from Ahmedabad and Surat.
In a state where BJP dominance of two decades is up against new Congress assertiveness, the latter has sealed its control of the municipality by removing BJP councillors from all municipal committees.
In November 2015, the Congress won a majority, 29 of 44 seats, and ran the municipality for about a year, before the BJP took over on the back of infighting in the Congress. The local Congress leadership had got Nimishaben Patel appointed municipality president when 19 other councillors had wanted the post for another councillor, Raiben Patel. This led to the 10 dissident Congress councillors, led by Raiben Patel, teaming up with the BJP, followed by a no-trust motion in June 2017 that toppled the Nimishaben Patel-led Congress board.
Raiben Patel was appointed president while BJP councillor Kaushik Vyas was made chairman of the municipality’s standing committee. Relations soured, however, in a few months, with no further political incentive for the Congress rebels. The ground cited by the rebels is that their development proposals were not cleared by the municipality.
“The BJP created problems for us in everything, tried to finish us politically,” Raiben Patel said. “During the assembly elections, local Congress leaders approached us. We reached an understanding to resolve our differences. I was assured that I would continue as municipality president if I returned to the party with the other nine councillors. On January 8 I called a meeting of all 29 Congress councillors. Using my powers as municipality president, I removed the BJP’s Kaushik Vyas as standing committee chairman and all BJP members from eight committees.”
Congress district unit president Kirtisinh Zala described the return of the councillors as ghar wapasi, while district BJP president Nitin Patel called it “opportunistic politics”. “The 10 Congress councillors had joined hands with BJP for personal gain. But they quit the BJP coalition after they found that BJP is not ready to satisfy their illogical expectations,” Nitin Patel said. He did not specify what these “illogical expectations” were.
Zala agreed that the Congress councillors had gone with the BJP owing to differences over Nimishaben Patel’s elevation. “We have now resolved our internal differences. Raiben will continue to be municipality president,” Zala said. “Though these Congress councillors had helped the BJP acquire power in the municipality, they were treated as outcasts by the BJP.”
Mehsana district collector H K Patel has issued a notice to Raiben Patel, asking her to reply why she reconstituted all the municipal committees. The notice was issued under Section 257 and 258 of the Gujarat Municipal Act, 1963, on a petition by BJP councillor Girish Rajguru who prayed for staying Raiben Patel’s orders. The collector could not be contacted for comment.
The 10 returning Congress councillors comprise seven Patidars, a Kshatriya, a Muslim and a tribal.
The BJP holds five of the district’s seven assembly seats, including Mehsana, and the Congress two. Of the seven municipalities in the district, the BJP leads the Congress 4-3. The Congress is in power in Mehsana district panchayat, and six taluka panchayats out of 10.