A six-term sitting MLA from Jhagadia, the inspiration of an under-production biopic and the veteran tribal leader who offers a coy smile when compared to the mythical outlaw Robin Hood — Chhotubhai Vasava doesn’t believe in campaigning. Neither does the other Chhotubhai Vasava — a political debutant, a virtual nobody and the lesser-known namesake who’s challenging the original. The Congress-backed heavyweight and lightweight, both have their reasons.
The former is outrageously confident that his towering larger-than-life stature and the commitment of his cadre compensate for his absence at the hustings. “May be, ek chakkar lagaunga (Maybe, I will do one round),” he says reluctantly, his smirk conveying the wastefulness of hitting the road.
As for the latter, the other Chhotubhai, his strength is his invisibility. He isn’t seen or heard. His wife has spoken, though, not to clear the air but to add mist to the mystery. He hasn’t come home since the day he filed his nomination, is what she has told the local media. Just off the busy NH 8 where luxury buses, with tinted windows, blinkers-like rear-view mirrors and passengers with earphones, canter all day, the South Gujarat town where 30 top industrial houses sit next to the region’s least developed areas is witnessing an intriguing many-layered election story.
This is a Robin Hood vs Phantom jungle tale and the fight is over an arrow. On the surface, this is merely a battle to decide who represents Jhagadia’s 2,32,000 — 1,60,000 tribals among them — in the state assembly. But behind the curtains there are very distinct silhouettes of many powerful national figures with their insecurities and agendas.
The first of them happens to be Nitish Kumar, the man who ‘Vasava-I’ thinks is responsible for snatching the all-important arrow from him and handing it over to ‘Vasava-II’. The facts are as follows. The original Vasava, a JD(U) candidate for decades, had fought and won with the ‘arrow’ symbol for years. It was easily identified by his mostly illiterate Adivasi voters and fitted his image of an aggressive tribal leader like a capital T.
However, Nitish’s shift to the NDA resulted in the ‘arrow’ getting stuck in the Bihar Chief Minister’s quiver. Vasava-I didn’t follow Nitish, he contested the symbol switch but the EC was unmoved. The 72-year-old Vasava, who famously voted to extend his old friend and Congress veteran Ahmed Patel’s Rajya Sabha stint recently by defying the BJP, formed a new party called Bharatiya Tribal Party, with a fresh strategic poll alliance. Now, a profusely thankful Congress was on his side and so was the JD(U) old hand Sharad Yadav.
With BJP desperate to loosen the long-standing local leader’s hold on the region, Nitish gave the ‘arrow’ to the new Chhotubhai Vasava. The BJP, meanwhile, roped in Ravji Vasava, the original Vasava’s one-time right hand.
The plan to eat into tribal votes and cut the tribal leader to size was well and truly in place. The day Yadav landed in Vadodara to be part of Vasava’s 1,000-motorcycle rally — a show of strength for BTS’s youth wing Bilistan Tiger Sena — he lost his Rajya Sabha seat. If Vasava’s proximity can you get a Rajya Sabha seat, his association can even make you lose it, too.
Despite the turmoil around, Vasava looks unperturbed. They call him ‘Saheb’ in these parts, and he plays the part, too. Today, he is at Vasna, a tiny village accessed by a smooth, snaking road that cuts through sugarcane fields and banana plantations. Vasava’s wife hails from this village. Here, the son-in-law of the soil gets added respect.
Unlike other houses in the village, where it’s either a spindly cock or an anorexic dog that add to the bustle on the front porch, the Vasava house has gleaming SUVs and cars with, as they say in these parts, “chaar bungdi”.
Colloquially, Audi’s four-ring logo reminds locals of intermingling silver bangles. In a surreal touch to the scene, a group of emus, the flightless bird of Australian origin, drag their feet not far away. Vasava’s love of animals is part of local folklore.
Inside the hall, a fierce-looking lion poster presents an intimidating backdrop to Saheb’s daily darbar. He isn’t sitting on the throne, the high cushy chair with earthly tapestry. Instead, he prefers a plastic chair. He faces a small crowd of worried-looking men who would easily get walk-in parts in any of Shyam Benegal’s early works from the 70s.
While he is being interviewed, the faithful watch in awe. During his hour-long interaction, Vasava doesn’t forget them, he often uses them as props. “It’s my love for them that makes me their unquestionable leader. I don’t campaign, they campaign for me. I don’t worry about not getting the arrow. My face is the symbol for my people. They know where to vote,” he says with the relish of an actor who expects applause. Unfailingly, they oblige.
He never fails to drag BJP’s top two — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah — into conversations. “Modi has no love, that’s why he did notebandi. Tell me one thing, have you seen any poor with Modi on stage, anyone with dirty clothes?” he asks.
Vasava repeatedly talks about the Constitution and the implementation of Schedule 5 and 6 that will give special provision to tribals. “Mine is a people’s movement, there are benefits for tribals elsewhere but not here. We should have roads, education and water,” he says.
His election affidavit lists his 28 cases but Vasava talks about the price to pay to be in public life, and hurdles of fighting the high and mighty. One of his supporters elaborates: “Had he adopted Gandhi’s principle of presenting the other cheek, he would have been as irrelevant as Anna Hazare.”
Vasava blames circumstances for the path he took and his destiny. The murder of his father-in-law, who had his throat slit, exploitation of tribals and encroachment of industries on forest land made him walk the thin line and at times cross it. His election affidavit shows his income to be Rs 1.1 crore but it’s a figure that makes most of Jhagadia crack up. They talk about how the factory owners in GIDC can’t afford to do business without indulging Vasava, and the dependence of the region’s two sugar factories on the agri-output of his family’s acres of farms.
But around Vasna and even Maljipura, Vasava’s own village, it’s the Robin Hood narrative that’s more prevalent.
To immortalise the folklore, Vasava recently commissioned his biopic. Ask for details and he calls his minders: “Shailesh .. Shirish ne phone kar.” Within minutes, director Shirish Chaudhary and the man who plays Vasava is on line. He talks about how it took him a year to convince ‘Saheb’ and how it will take him a year to complete the first-ever Gujarati biopic. It will be a movie with a message and the financial gains from the project will go into the making of a tribal museum,” he says.
In little more than a fortnight, the fate of the Vasava legacy will be decided. With the final script to take definite shape on December 18, the day of the results, Chaudhary has time on hand. As of now, he is deciding the cast. “Jolly Mukherjee, the man who sang the song ‘Chandni’, has been roped in and I have approached Prem Chopra to play Chimanbhai Patel,” he says.