Updated: November 1, 2017 1:42:31 pm
As Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi embarks on the third leg of Gujarat campaign tour on Wednesday to cover south Gujarat, which includes Ankleshwar, the spotlight will be on top Congress leader Ahmed Patel who belongs to the region. Patel was dragged into the ISIS case made out by the Gujarat police against two men from Surat, one of whom was employed as a technician at the Sardar Patel Hospital and Heart Institute before his arrest. The senior Congress leader is among the patrons of the hospital and was associated with it since its foundation.
As the Congress warmed up to the Patidar quota leader Hardik Patel who has been drawing large crowds in his rallies, the BJP’s war room dished out a plan to emasculate the party by charging one of its top leaders — who is also political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and a Muslim from Gujarat of harbouring “a terrorist.”
The party seemed to be looking for its “Maut Ka Saudagar” (Merchant of Death) moment.
In 2007, a similar Patidar resentment had led to sentiment building against Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat. Three IPS officers had been arrested in the fake encounter case of Sohrabuddin Sheikh. At the height of the election campaign that year, Congress president Sonia Gandhi referred to Modi as “Maut Ka Saudagar” at a public gathering in Valsad in south Gujarat on December 1, 2007. Modi exploited her remark in his favour by asking the crowds what he should he have done with Sohrabuddin Sheikh who was branded a terrorist.
On October 27, Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani tried doing the same by seeking Patel’s resignation at a press conference that kept getting put off as the BJP, in consultation with the RSS tried to string together an assault weapon.
The case is being investigated by the Gujarat Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS), the same agency that had been charged by the CBI of faking encounters and making up stories around them when Modi was the chief minister.
Even as Ahmed Patel is engaged in producing documents to show he had resigned from the Sardar Patel Hospital in 2014 and has written to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh protesting against politicians commenting on investigations such as these, the case is likely to build up in the coming weeks, as the Gujarat ATS digs into the ‘terror plot’ that could help the BJP.
But the story may not be as appealing to the electorate as was Sohrabuddin’s 10 years ago. On Tuesday Hardik Patel tweeted, “In Gujarat election is the BJP left with no agenda? Again same three issues! Terrorism, Hindu-Muslim and cow slaughter. People are not fools.”
The Congress is stepping carefully around the provocation. Its leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, appear to be playing a “soft” Hindutva card. Rahul began his campaign with a visit to Dwarkadish Temple in Dwarka and on several occasions, he has addressed public gatherings while chanting “Jai Mata Di”.
Incidentally, Modi himself brought up the “Maut Ka Saudagar” jibe while tweeting about a phone conversation he had with a Vadodara-based BJP worker on Diwali — that audio clip has gone viral.
With the election campaign set to intensify with each passing day, the BJP will use all its might to pursue votes in the name of religion and development. the BJP’s attempt to polarise voters started with the launch of a two-week long “Gujarat Gaurav Yatra” on October 2 during which its president Amit Shah on several occasions reminded Gujaratis about their days of “curfews” and openly took names of gangsters like Abdul Latif and Ijju Shaikh. He also reminded how Gujarat has been free from riots since 2002.
The Congress’s meek response to Rupani’s allegations suggests that the grand old party is not able to find a way to counter the BJP’s polarisation tricks. Instead of questioning the timing of arrest of two Muslim youths — the very same day as poll dates were announced — and the loopholes in the case, the Congress leadership presented itself as victims of terrorism, having lost both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi to terrorism.
The BJP’s “dislike” for Ahmed Patel came to the fore in 2010 when the then minister of state for home Amit Shah was arrested by the CBI in Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case. BJP insiders still claim that probes into all the encounter cases including Ishrat Jahan were politically motivated and that Patel allegedly played a key role in them. In the 2012 assembly election campaign, Modi tried to sway the voters by addressing Ahmed Patel in Bharuch as “Ahmed Miyan Patel.” Patel hails from Bharuch. Patel was again targeted by the BJP in the Rajya Sabha polls in August this year but failed to defeat him.
Apart from a soft Hindu card, another important aspect of Congress’s strategy this year is to keep its distance from NGOs. The BJP was able to create an anti-NGO sentiment — NGOs had targeted Modi for the 2002 post Godhra violence. For now, the Congress has decided to put Godhra on the back burner.
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