February 18, 2021 9:03:19 am
In the previous election in 2015, the BJP failed to put up even a single candidate in the municipality as Patidar leaders, under social pressure, refused to contest on its symbol after the quota agitation led by the Hardik Patel-founded Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), created an anti-BJP sentiment in the community.
Mehsana, the district impacted majorly by the agitation, continues to be barred for Hardik, following a bail condition in one of the several cases he faces. Hardik subsequently joined the Congress and is now the party’s state working president and also barred by the Gujarat High Court from stepping out of the state.
Unjha, a predominantly dominated by Patidars and centre for spice trade, especially cumin, is pivotal to the politics of North Gujarat, where BJP’s star campaigner, Union minister Smriti Irani, addressed a rally on Tuesday. Traditionally a BJP bastion, this time two of its candidates out of the total 36 for the municipality body, have been declared winners uncontested here.
In 2015, Unjha was one of the hotspots of the Patidar agitation where a number of members from the community were booked in criminal cases. The general elections of the municipality were held when the agitation was at its peak.
Congress fielded five candidates on its symbol and the remaining were independents. Eventually, the elected body of the municipality had all independent councillors with sole exception of Lavjibhai Parmar from Ward no. 9, who won on a Congress ticket, and is now contesting as an independent. “Nobody from the Congress asked me to contest on its symbol,” he told this paper.
This time, there is a 180-degree turn in Unjha where the BJP has fielded its candidates on all 36 seats and Congress has none. Leading the party’s campaign is BJP MLA from Unjha Asha Patel, a former close aide of Hardik, who won the 2017 assembly elections on a Congress ticket, switched to BJP and won the by-election from the same seat in 2019.
In the 2017 assembly elections, she was seen as a giant slayer, having defeated BJP stalwart and five-time MLA Narayan Patel, in an election where the Congress got 77 seats — its highest number in the Gujarat assembly since the BJP came to power in 1995.
“In the past, the BJP has never fielded candidates on all the seats of Unjha municipality… two of our candidates have already been elected uncontested,” said Asha, expressing confidence of a BJP victory in the municipality and adding that reputed people from the town have been given party ticket.
On the impact of Patidar reservation agitation, Asha said, “There is no effect of Patidar agitation (now). All the Patidars are with the BJP. At that time (in 2015), an illusion was created. Once people saw through it, they came back (to BJP) along with me.”
On January 30, for the first time in years, leaders of the two sects of Patidars — Leuva and Kadva Patidars — of the Khodaldham Trust and Shree Umiya Mataji Sansthan respectively, met at Unjha to press for a larger presence in “political, social and educational fields and to unify” the two sects that have traditionally revered different deities and observed separate social customs. Khodal Mata is the deity of the clan of Leuva Patels, and Umiya Mata is that of the Kadva Patels, whose shrine is in Unjha.
Hitesh Patel, a local BJP leader and one of the party’s candidates from Ward No. 3, said that out of the total 35 independent councilors in the outgoing body of Unjha municipality, 10 are fighting elections on BJP ticket.
Rinkuben Patel, a candidate among the 10 and contesting from Ward no. 2, said, “This year, the atmosphere is in favour of the BJP (in Unjha). So I am contesting as BJP candidate. I believe in giving cooperation if something good (for the public) is happening.”
But, there is a panel of independent candidates led by Dharmendra Patel popular as ‘Dhamo Milan’ who was once with Asha Patel, but has now parted ways, and challenges the BJP.
Speaking with The Indian Express, Dharmendra said, “We are fighting against the BJP as independents… we parted ways owing to disputes with Ashaben. She did not consider us (in distribution of party tickets).”
Dharmendra said that they did not consider joining Congress because the general public in Unjha “does not like Congress”. In the last elected body of the municipality, the panel of independents was led by Dharmendra and his brother Jitendra.
Congress party incharge for Unjha, Pankaj Patel, said that he had so far held only one meeting for the Unjha municipality to check the future course of action for the party and submitted a report to Gujarat Congress president Amit Chavda of the situation on ground, but refused to divulge its content.
Out of the total 81 candidates in the fray for the municipality, 44 are independents.
Lavjibhai Parmar, a Dalit, said, “I wanted to contest as Congress candidate, but nobody from the party spoke to me. We could have won at least three seats…. BJP people asked me to fight on their symbol. But I am a Congress supporter. So, I chose to contest as an independent.”
A dozen local residents told the Indian Express that the major issues in the town are lack of good higher education institutions and hospitals. Many of them also cited inflation. They, however, remained tight-lipped about the impact of Patidar reservation agitation of 2015 on the current elections.
Priya Patel, a 24-year-old post graduate, said, “I will decide my voting preference only after knowing about all the candidates. I will vote for those who will work for us. We do not have a good college or hospital in Unjha. There is one medical college in Vadnagar, but it is far from Unjha. If there is a serious health issue, we need to take patients either to Mehsana or Ahmedabad.”
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