In the temple town of Somnath-Veraval, as in the rest of Somnath constituency, caste rather than religion could hold the key to the election. The town includes Somnath temple, believed to be the first of the 12 Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva, and visited by lakhs of devotees every year.
Mitha Rathod, 47, presents a rare sight as he rides an e-scooter on roads ruled by diesel-powered chakhadas. He is emphatic about voting for his “brother” from the Koli community, Vimal Chudasma.
“We are brothers of the same caste. Without doubt I will vote for him,” Rathod said, showing off the e-scooter. He acquired it last year and has already ridden it for 20,000 km. It has clocked most of that mileage commuting between his village, Beej, and his shop in Prachi, a pilgrimage centre associated with Lord Krishna and located about 25 km from Somnath where Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally Wednesday.
Is the e-scooter not a sign of development? “Look at this road [Somanth to Prachi]. It has potholes for most of the year,” he said, then listed other complaints. “There are frequent power cuts and I carry the recharging system everywhere I go, using it when I get access to power. We don’t get the right price for our produce,” said Rathod, who owns 10 bighas farmland and is currently growing sugarcane. “Promises have remained unfulfilled, and the local politician is inaccessible.”
BJP and Congress leaders both acknowledge that the Koli community is the largest group in Somnath. Muslims, Ahirs and Kharvas are among the other larger groups.
Gir-Somnath district has four seats; the BJP holds three including Somnath — initially won by a Congress MLA, who quit, joined the BJP and won the seat again, in a bypoll. The MLA, Jasha Barad, is MoS for tourism.
The BJP camp agrees that caste is key. “Somnath is a very prestigious seat for the party, especially because of its connection to the temple. But this time, it is a tough battle,” said Naresh Patel, head of the party’s IT cell in Somnath. “Though Jashabhai has done a lot of developmental work in the town, the caste equation looks threatening.”
Asked about the caste breakup, Patel said, “Kolis are the largest group but the BJP did not give a ticket to a leader of the community, like the Congress. On the other hand, Muslims, Kharvas and a section of Ahirs have aligned in favour of our rivals. It will take a lot of spadework to change this equation.”
Two women workers wearing saffron scarves walked in to the BJP campaign office and told leaders that Congress workers have been visiting every house in the neighbourhood. “I think we should emulate them and not be overconfident,” said a woman worker.
At a rally, candidate Jasha Barad said: “Somnath, first of the Jyotirlingas, will soon be connected by a cement road to Dwarka. A similar road will connect the town to Bhavnagar.” He stressed the BJP’s commitment to promises made. “We have already laid 700 km of pipelines that is providing Narmada water for drinking here.”
Farukh Mirza, a Congress leader who heads the Opposition in the municipality, said the Congress has fielded Koli candidates in Somnath as well as Una, an Ahir on Talala, and a Dalit in Kodinar. “Winning Somnath is important to us,” said Mirza, who alleged that the temple town has hardly seen any new infrastructure development. Somnath-Veraval is lined with small and large units dealing with fish exports, ice-factories and traditional dhow and fishing boat manufacturers.
Prabhudas Chomal, who has been building dhows in Veraval since 1976, said his business has fallen by half in the last one year. He claimed to be a BJP member. “Our business has been badly impacted in the last one year; it is down by 50%. Local fish exporting companies have reduced their orders for boats,” he said. Asked about the election, he said, “The BJP will surely win. We expect the Kolis to turn around close to the polling day.”
Autorickshaw driver Latif Memon hopes the temple town will remain peaceful. “Hindu or Muslim, everybody in this town wants to see the Somnath temple prosper,” said Memon, who hails from nearby Kodinar but has made the town his home for the last 30 years. “The future of our families depend on the temple. There are many like me who earn a living by ferrying tourists and pilgrims to and from the temple.”