Sitting at his office in Chanasma GIDC (Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation) zone, Rajul Patel (52) is holding meetings with local Congress workers. Amidst dwindling Congress numbers in this BJP bastion, his is a difficult job —rendered even more arduous since national BJP working president J P Nadda declared recently that all registered voters in Chanasma had enrolled as primary members of the saffron party.
That is 10,600 people.
While Nadda’s claim of 100 per cent enrolment is most certainly an exaggeration, Patel, the Congress’s Chanasma tehsil president , knows he has little to be happy about. The recent entrants to the BJP include district Congress president Praful Vyas, who crossed over with 50 supporters around two months ago.
Chanasma used to be part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home district Mehsana, but now falls under Patan. Dominated by Patidars, followed by Dalits and Thakors, the town, with a population of around 16,000, was declared a municipality in 1996.
However, since the declaration, the Congress has only once fought the municipal elections on its own symbol, in February 2016. It won two seats, against 22 for the BJP.
“The BJP’s claim of all registered voters having enrolled as its party members is completely baseless. However, I must admit that the Congress presence in the town is poor. For example, when the Congress decided to field candidates for the municipal polls in February 2016, we found it difficult to even find 24 nominees. We had to personally approach people and assure them that we will help them out during campaigning,” says Patel.
The 52-year-old, who has been with the Congress since 30 years, reasons, “Chanasma is traditionally a BJP bastion, the RSS has a strong presence here. For more than 25 years, the BJP has been in power in Gujarat. So people join the party if they have electoral ambition… Only those who strongly believe in the ideology of the Congress join or stay in the party.”
Standing in front of the local Executive Magistrate’s office in the Mamlatdar Office Area, a prominent landmark in the town, Patel hails down Congress workers Varun Vyas, Nikunj Dave, Ramesh Desai and Dr Viram Oza to show that Nadda isn’t right in clubbing all Chanasma voters as BJP supporters. “Meet these people, they are our men. They are working to make the Congress strong here,” he says.
Agrees Vyas, a 35-year-old farmer, “In the recent Lok Sabha elections, the Congress candidate (Jagdish Thakor) got around 2,500 votes out of the 7,000-odd cast in the 14 booths of Chanasma. The BJP candidate (Bharatsinh Dabhi) received about 4,500 votes. Does this not prove that we have a presence here?”
However, even he admits that the party’s local leadership is finding it extremely difficult to keep up the morale of workers and supporters. “We keep meeting and asking people about their needs. At the same time, we also stay firm against any attempt by the BJP to lure our workers,” he says.
Oza, 74, believes that it is an uphill battle given the funds crunch ailing the Congress not just in Chanasma but across the country. “Unlike the Congress, the BJP helps its workers financially. In the absence of such a system, there is lack of discipline and consistency among workers.”
He adds that committed senior members like him have helped the Congress’s Chanasma unit even financially to sustain the party’s organisational structure and keep it relevant. “To keep the organisation vibrant, we motivate young workers to conduct programmes in the town,” Oza says.
Still, the Congress held its last public meeting in Chanasma way back during the Lok Sabha polls, when senior party leader Siddharth Patel addressed a gathering.
Satish Parmar (55), an LIC agent, wishes the Congress would raise problems of Dalits like himself, pointing out that the community has traditionally been a supporter of the party. “There are hygiene-related issues in our locality. The gutters overflow during the monsoons. The Congress should publicly flag such issues. I also want the party to raise the issue of atrocities against Dalits in various parts of the country.”
Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee leader and Patan district in-charge Kirtisinh Zala insists they are talking about the problems of the people, and that the situation in Chanasma is changing. “The town is dominated by Patidars, who have been loyal to the BJP. But we are drawing people’s attention to issues such as unemployment and economic slowdown,” he says.
Meanwhile, Patel talks of BJP workers approaching him, “regularly”, with offers to join the saffron party. That might definitely mean the end of the Congress in Chanasma, he says. “By getting me and my supporters, they want to wipe off the Congress here.”