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In Unjha, Asia’s spice capital, Patidar quota hot seat, AAP keeps pot stirring for BJP

BJP fields RSS heavyweight vs Congress grassroots worker, but enthusiastic New Zealand returned AAP tyro promises surprise

(From left) BJP's Kirit Patel, AAP's Urvish Patel and Congress's Arvind Patel.

The small, nondescript town of Unjha in Mehsana district of north Gujarat, sitting at the centre of the eponymous Assembly constituency, is popularly known as the spice capital of Asia. A bastion of the BJP for decades, it had turned into a problem spot for the saffron party in the 2017 Assembly polls, as it was one of the hot spots of the Hardik Patel-led Patidar quota agitation of 2015.

This time, with the pendulum seemingly swinging back towards the BJP, the constituency is set to witness a three-pronged battle in the ongoing Gujarat Assembly elections, with the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) into what has thus far been a straight battle between traditional rivals the Congress and the BJP.

Unjha is pivotal to the politics of North Gujarat, and particularly, to the narrative surrounding the life of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His hometown, Vadnagar, falls under it. With around 2.32 lakh voters, the constituency is dominated by the influential Patidar caste, followed by Thakors, Muslims and Dalits. Umiyadham, the top religious centre of Kadva Patidars, a sub-caste of the Patidar community in the state, is also situated in Unjha. Predictably, all three parties have fielded Patidars.

The BJP has fielded veteran RSS leader Kirit Patel (66) as its candidate. A senior party leader from Mehsana said, “He (Kirit) has been the founding trustee of Vidya Bharati (the education wing of the RSS) in Gujarat, the former Gujarat president of the Vidya Bharati, and heads an organisation for girls’ education in Unjha. Kiritbhai has also worked in the seven sisters (the Northeast) to spread the works of Vidya Bharati there.”

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A civil engineer from LD Engineering College of Gujarat University, he is also a builder and farmer and seen as close to Modi.

The Congress has fielded Arvind Patel (47), a businessman, farmer and Class 12 passout, who is a former councillor of Unjha municipality. A Congress leader from Unjha says, “Our candidate is not a bahubali, but a grassroots worker who knows the issues of Unjha.”

The AAP candidate is Urvish Patel, a 31-year-old who returned from New Zealand around one-and-a-half years ago and is into natural farming.

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While BJP leaders in Mehsana predict a straight win for Kirit by a handsome margin, Congress leaders claim the result could be surprising. “Currently, it is difficult to gauge the voters’ mind. There are a number of issues — inflation, the poor condition of a number of Patidar businessmen in the region… So, you never know whom will they vote for,” a Congress leader says.

Others point out that the surprise in the mix is the spirited fight put up by the young AAP candidate. “The BJP may win the election, but it certainly won’t win easily,” says an observer.

While former BJP minister Narayan Patel had won Unjha five times, in the wake of the Patidar agitation, Congress leader Asha Patel, 44, an associate of Hardik Patel, had emerged the a giant killer in 2017, defeating him.

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In the local body elections held soon after the Patidar quota agitation, BJP candidates had been reluctant to fight on the party symbol for the 36-member Unjha municipality. The contest had thus seen 30 Independent candidates in the fray, with the Congress fielding five, one of whom won.

The political picture of Unjha, however, has since changed rapidly. Asha Patel herself resigned from the Congress, joined the BJP, and got elected as a BJP MLA from Unjha in a by-election in 2019. She died last year of dengue, and the seat has been lying vacant since.

In February 2021, the BJP also took control of the Unjha municipality.

First published on: 03-12-2022 at 20:10 IST
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