Caste and religious identities, old political loyalties and irrigation water have taken centre stage as candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress campaign in villages of the Abdasa Assembly constituency in Kutch district for the November 3 bypoll.
Pradyumansinh Jadeja and Dr Shantilal Senghani, the BJP and Congress candidates respectively, are finding it difficult to cover around 400 villages of Kutch district’s Nakhtrana, Abdasa and Lakhpat talukas which make up this Assembly constituency. Pothole-riddled rural roads damaged further by heavy rain this monsoon have slowed their movement from one village to another.
Jadeja, the sitting Congress MLA who resigned early this year and is a BJP candidate this by-election, promises a government college, an industrial training institute, two agricultural produce market committees (APMCs), bringing Narmada water to Nakhtrana, regularisation of houses constructed on government land, preference to locals in jobs in private sector. Dr Senghani, on the other hand, tries to convince voters that unlike Jadeja, he won’t defect if elected.
Kanubha Sodha, a Kashtriya, is among around 100 people attending Jadeja’s election meeting in Amara village of Nakhtrana. Sodha works as a security guard with a private energy company which has installed wind turbines around his village. He says, “I am a BJP supporter as the party works for the people. Much may I wish the BJP to win this by-election, Congress usually wins here as people have become aware and younger generation doesn’t always vote the way elders advise them. Defections and talks of money having changed hands for that only make matters worse,” the 55-year-old farmer who has studied till Class VII says.
The BJP candidate is a Kashtriya, while the Congress candidate is a Patidar. Nakhtrana is dominated by voters from Muslim community with Dalits being the second largest group. Patidars are the third largest constituents.
While Muslims are turning up at election meetings, comparatively in higher numbers at Congress meetings, not everyone is vocal about his or her choice. Alimamad Chaki, a shop-keeper in Amara village, refuses to declare his choice of candidate this bypoll. “The one whom I find trustworthy would get my vote,” he says without elaborating further.
But Lakhamshi Siju, a Dalit who is member of the Amara village panchayat, is clear. “We had voted for Jadeja in 2017 but I have not made such a provision this time. I don’t remember Jadeja having visited this village after getting elected. Whether the MLA is able to solve a problem or not, all that matters is to come to us and at least enquire about our condition,” Siju says, adding mockingly to complain about the poor shape of road connecting Amara to Ratadiya, “I am sure your journey to this village was smooth as the road is superb.”
In Aiyar, a village dominated by Patidars, sarpanch Pravin Patel assures Jadeja that he would get maximum votes from the village. But 53-year-old Shankar Patel is apprehensive. “This is a backward area with very limited economic opportunities. This has forced majority of Patidars to migrate out of here. Around 1,500 Patidars are native of Aiyar but hardly 60 to 70 actually live in this village now,” Shankar, who himself lives in Surat where he runs a store of ceramic products, says.
Due to migration, Muslims today are the largest voters group in Aiyar but Shanker says he would continue supporting the BJP. “BJP is the party espousing the cause of Hindutva, listens to us and also gets our work done,” Shankar, who has studied till Class IX and owns 50 acres in Aiyar adds.
The sarpanch reminds Jadeja about their demand to construct a dam in the village so that farmers get irrigation water and the BJP candidate assures the villagers that it will be done.
The semi-arid Kutch district gets average 412 millimetres (mm) rain only and groundwater in majority of its areas, including large parts of Lakhpat and Abdasa and a few pockets in Nakhtrana is salty, making agriculture difficult. The lignite mine of Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation, a private cement factory and wind parks provide bulk of non-agricultural jobs in this area. Shankar says that voters of backward communities, including Muslims, Kolis, Ahirs and Dalits decide outcome in Abdasa.
But the Patidar community is also divided due to caste factory at play this by-election. “Generally, we vote for BJP but this time it will be Congress. After all, Dr Senghani is from our community and we have to support him,” says Vishram Bhimani of Jinjay village whose family has settled in Kolhapur in Maharashtra.
Meanwhile, Meghji Koli of Valka Mota says he would stick to the BJP despite his general experience that politicians become indifferent to people after winning elections. “I will vote for Jadeja as he has assured that the issue of regularising houses in our village will be solved. If he manages to do that, we shall be obliged. But if he doesn’t, we can’t beat him up with a stick. Making a candidate victorious is like raising a son. There is no guarantee that the son would look after the elderly father,” says 42-year-old Koli who is an agricultural labourer.
Under the scorching afternoon sun, Jafar Pinjara and his family are busy harvesting groundnut in their 5.5 acre land in nearby Ravapar village. He says, religion doesn’t matter to him and points to the history of the constituency where no MLA has managed to retain his seat at least in the past 20 years. “People of Abdasa don’t elect the same person again. Jayanti Bhanushali, Ibrahim Mandhra, Chhabil Patel etc could win here only once. The one who would care for farmers would win here,” says 43-year-old farmer with no formal education.
Abdasa constituency has around 2.34 lakh voters. But, according to the 2011 Census, literacy rate in Lakhpat, Abdasa and Nakhtrana is 49.76 %, 57.7% and 71.12 % respectively—much lower than state average of 78%. “Winds of modernity have not reached this area so far and caste and religious identities are strong. This makes Abdasa among the safer seats for Congress,” a BJP leader concedes.
Congress has won the last three elections to Abdasa, including the 2014 bypoll warranted due to then Congress MLA Chhabil Patel’s defection to the BJP.
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