On the third consecutive day of his campaign for the upcoming bypoll to Morbi Assembly seat, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Brijesh Merja tried to convince voters in villages in the district that he had “sacrificed his position as Congress MLA” for the cause of nationalism, Ram temple and other issues espoused by the Narendra Modi government. However, he was confronted by villagers with their priorities: Narmada water for their farms and better roads.
At the Patidar-dominated Nava Sadulka village, Merja addressed a gathering at a Ram temple where Ravindra Trivedi, a BJP worker from Morbi, introduced him. Merja said, “Two days ago, you had a meeting with Saurabh Patel (the Energy Minister) and your problems would be solved as discussed. If you have any other issues, we can discuss.”
Vijay Panchotiya, a young farmer, responded rather aggressively: “We have no other complaints… save the fact that you weren’t seen in our village even once after winning the election in 2017.”
Merja tried to play it down saying he had visited the village two to three times but the villagers drowned his voice, insisting he hadn’t. “Last year, we sowed Rabi crops in October but Narmada water reached our fields only in December after we fought our way up till Gandhinagar… You bring us water else forget support from our village,” Dinesh Panchamiya, sarpanch of Nava Sadulka, thundered.
Hiren Pathak, general secretary of Morbi district unit of the BJP, sought to underline that they were sitting in a Ram temple and that it was the BJP who had kept its promise of constructing a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya.
“We welcome the Supreme Court judgement on the Ram temple. But let us talk about Narmada water right now,” the sarpanch said, cutting Pathak short.
KS Amrutiya, vice-president of BJP’s Morbi district unit, tried to reason saying, “The problem is incomplete network of canals and Nava Sadulka being at the tail end of canal. When work on network is completed, we can formally place demand for Narmada water.”
However, the sarpanch was is no mood to relent and Merja had to ring up an SSNNL engineer in charge of the Dhrangadhra branch canal, asking him to ensure that water reaches the farmers of Nava Sadulka.
At the neighbouring Bhaktinagar village, Pathak said that the BJP-led NDA government abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and reformed agricultural laws.
In Kshatriya-dominated Ravapar (Nadi) village, Merja was welcomed with a garland. “I sacrificed my MLA post at the altar of Narendra Modi’s yagna of Rashtravad and my sacrifice would not go in vain,” Merja said to a round of applause.
Merja and seven other Congress MLAs resigned ahead of the Rajya Sabha election, making the Congress strength come down in the Gujarat Assembly. The party won one seat, while the BJP bagged three. Five of the defectors, including Merja, who joined the BJP later are contesting the bypolls on BJP ticket now.
By-elections for the eight Assembly seats is slated for November 3 and counting of votes is on November 10.
It was for the third time in six years that Merja had switched camps. He was president of the Morbi district unit of Congress when he defected to the BJP in 2014 only to return to the Congress in the run up to the Assembly election in 2017 when he won his maiden Assembly seat.
In Krushnagar, a village dominated by Ahirs, sarpanch Hari Khimaniya said, “For five years, the condition of the road connecting our village to National Highway 29 has turned bad to worse.” Khimaniya’s son Rajesh complained about the village not getting Narmada water.
Despite these, 75-year-old Chandu Miyatra, a farmer, said he would vote the BJP. “All my life I remained a Congress supporter. But this time I would vote BJP as we have to follow what Sukhabapa, leader of our community, tells us,” said Miyatra.
From Krushnagar, Merja’s convoy proceeded to Gungan, a village dominated by Kshatriyas and Kolis. Just as Pathak finished his address, former sarpanch Temubha Jadeja asked him, “Where are you from? What development are you talking about? Did you notice the condition of the road to our village?” The 75-year-old then fired a barrage of questions.
“We have got Rs 12 lakh sanctioned for this road,” said Merja.
“I was an Opposition MLA and Rs 12 lakh was sanctioned for the one-km stretch,” said the BJP candidate.
As Temubha refused to budge and complained that Merja was not responding to phone calls, the BJP candidate wound up the meeting.
His convoy had more than half a dozen cars while he himself drove in an SUV though his affidavit attached to his election nomination papers didn’t enlist any cars. “You should not focus on these things,” Merja told The Indian Express when asked about the same, adding that the cars in the convoy belonged his friends and supporters.
Battle of prestige
The results of the bypolls to eight Assembly constituencies in Gujarat are unlikely to have any direct impact on the BJP government in the state. However, on Morbi seat, it is a battle of prestige. The BJP maintained a hold over this seat since 1985 before Merja managed to breach the bastion in 2017. For Congress, winning this seat would underscore that Patidars, who dominate this seat, are still with it.
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