Surmal Panda, a 33-year-old Congress member of Dahod district panchayat, could not attend the funeral of his elder brother’s wife who died on Friday. He was in hiding with 24 other panchayat members of the party in Gandhinagar to avoid being “poached” by BJP.
With Congress having 26 members and BJP 24, the fight for the posts of district panchayat president and vice-president was close and violent. One Congress member was taken to hospital after clashes on December 23 when the members met at zila panchayat building in a filed attempt to conduct the elections.
Elections for president and vice-president of Dahod district panchayat were finally held Saturday amid high security, leading to victories of Congress’s Ramilaben Limbabhai Bhuria and Purushottam Chauhan, respectively .
Panda and the other Congress members were in hiding since December 2 when the results of the local body elections were declared.
After remaining underground for 24 days, Panda returned to his village on Saturday. He said he came to know about the tragedy in his family when he was in Gandhinagar, but could not attend the funeral due to “fear of BJP leaders”.
“I could not attend the funeral because there were chances that I could have been approached by BJP leaders to support the saffron party,” Panda told The Sunday Express over phone. “People have elected on a Congress ticket with a belief that I will work for them. So, I had to make sacrifice by staying away from my house.”
A first-time member of the district panchayat, Panda alleged: “My family members were regularly contacted by local BJP leaders for my whereabouts. But, all 26 Congress members had switched off their phones and were in touch with their families over the phone of a party leader accompanying us during this period.”
Giving details of his time underground, Panda said they were taken out of Dahod in a luxury bus on December 2 to Mera village in Surendranagar district, the native place of Congress leader Laljibhai Desai, who was among the three persons accompanying the 26 members.
They were then taken to Somnath and Dwarka temples for “darshan”, Daman and Diu and Mount Abu for sight-seeing.
“I enjoyed it all,’’ he said.
One of the Congress members was 27-year-old Kapilaben Maheshbhai Machar, mother of two sons (one four-year-old and the other two-year-old). “My father-in-law and mother-in-law took care of my sons at home,” she said. She was accompanied by her husband Maheshbhai.
“We had no contact with our families during this period, but we did not face any problem. The party had made proper arrangements for our stay,” she said.
Laljibhai Desai, who accompanied the Congress members, said: “We ensured that BJP leaders do not make any contact with these people before the completion of elections for president and vice-president posts’.”
Only two seats separated Congress and BJP in the 50-member panchayat, “and BJP could have easily won over two members from Congress had the party leaders not taken taken this step,” he said.
“They were first taken to Dahod on December 22, the date for election of panchayat’s president and vice-president, but we brought them again to Ahmedabad on December 23 after elections could not be held due to disturbances,” said Desai.
“We then kept them in Gandhinagar and took them to Dahod on December 26 after the High Court’s order directing District Collector M A Gandhi to hold smooth elections at 11 am,” Desai pointed out.
He said after the elections, all Congress members were escorted to their villages under police protection for fear of attacks by their political rivals.