It is close to 9pm. In the light beaming from the headlamp of his campaign car — a rented seven-seater covered in vinyl election posters — 36-year-old Rajesh Vasava, the Chhota Udepur candidate from Chhotu Vasava’s Bhartiya Tribal Party (BTP), speaks to villagers seated on a mud path of Hanfeshwar in Kawant taluka of Chhota Udepur district. He urges them to vote for a candidate they think would address their problems – their right over the forest lands being snatched away from them, the unchecked sale of spurious liquor in tribal areas and the water crisis in the villages.
“Do you know that like some of you who lost your lands in the name of development, the government now has a good excuse to evict you from your homes because of a Supreme Court order?” he asked the crowd. “You cannot fetch wood, flowers or forest produce like before. Now, a forest officer can arrest you, shoot you and throw you out and no one will question him.”
He continued: “You all here may be thinking that the displacement of many of our tribal brothers has been done only in areas around the dam (on the Narmada) and statue (Statue of Unity) but soon you could be next.”
He also told the crowd how those displaced from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have not been given adequate compensation till today. “So vote wisely no matter who you vote for,” he said.
Raj Vasava, as he is popularly known, says he wants to cover as many villages in the remotest places as possible and make the people aware of their rights, but his being a “poor, tribal party”, they don’t have funds. Unusually, therefore, Vasava began a crowdfunding campaign on his Facebook just a few days ago, urging his friends and supporters to help him raise money.
“I am probably the first candidate in Gujarat to start a crowdfunding for my election campaign. Kanhaiya Kumar has done it in Bihar,” he says. “The idea is to cover costs of travel as Chhota Udepur is a vast constituency with far flung villages even in jungle areas. I don’t have the funds but I want to make sure that I don’t leave out any village.”
He says the idea came from friends in Central University of Gujarat who are helping him make use of social media to the fullest. His crowdfunding appeal has received a positive response, and he has also shared details of his contributors. “I have already received contributions from wellwishers who are backing a change this time,” he says.
He hopes his campaign too will receive a positive response. However, he does not directly appeal for votes as he did for funds. Instead he reminds the people of the problems that are uniquely theirs and urges them to choose the right candidate to solve them.
“One group will come and tell you to vote for (Narendra) Modi, another will tell you to vote for Rahul (Gandhi) but it is up to you to think whether your problems on the ground affect Modi or Rahul. Will your distress affect the roti that they eat everyday?,” he asks the crowd gathered for the night meeting. “I am sure 99 of 100 children sitting here do not have chappals (slippers) on their feet. Look at the area around you, there is no electricity. But just a few days before elections, these people will come here and distribute a bottle of liquor or give you some money and lure you to vote for them,” Vasava told the crowd of men of all ages as well as teenage boys.
Dwelling on the issue of liquor being used to bribe voters in tribal areas, he tries to get the crowd to recognise its insidiousness. “All over the country there is free-flowing alcohol whereas Gujarat is the only state where alcohol has been prohibited for decades. Yet, it is also the state where alcohol is available in larger quantities than others,” Raj Vasava pointed out. “And, not the good quality liquor, but the quality that can harm you and at times also kill you. It is a problem in the tribal areas that many have spoken of,” he added, reminding the tribal people to think before casting their vote.
“To me, it doesn’t matter if you vote for me or not because I am always going to be in your midst. But it does matter whether you vote for the right candidate,” he tells them.
Vasava is London-educated. He is an alumnus of United College in London, where he completed his Diploma in Finance. It is a selling point in the special manifesto, a leaflet bearing 19 points in Gujarati, that he has distributed. Speaking of his background to The Indian Express, Vasava says his father, who worked at a fabrication firm, borrowed money from his friends to fund his studies in London. “That money helped me get through the first year in London. Thereafter, I worked at a local store as an assistant manager and paid my fees.” In his affidavit, Vasava has declared bank deposits of Rs 1.8 lakh and an income of about Rs 4.5 lakh in the past year. His wife, a resident doctor in Latur, Maharashtra, who belongs to a local tribal community there, has been supporting him in his activism. “She is studying to become an ENT specialist. She has been my backbone through it all since our wedding,” he says.
Vasava is not merely a London-educated youth parachuted to the constituency, however. He has been a part of various agitations undertaken by the BTP since its inception in 2017. “Of the three candidates here, I am the most educated. I have led tribal agitations in other states and also camped at Jantar Mantar just before the filing of nominations to protest against the Supreme court order that allows displacement of over 23 lakh tribal families from their forest homes,” he tells this newspaper, speaking in fluent English. “I will continue to be among the tribals and be their voice, (even if) not necessarily as their MP.”
In his “manifesto” he calls the tribal peoples “Desh ka Malik”. Vasava, who is a native of Bharuch district, urges the tribal people to unite instead of “dividing the place into territories of Rathwa, Bhil, Tadvi, Baria and Vasava sub castes”. The leaflet also promises to stop the displacement of tribal people, which is allegedly being done in the name of tourism projects associated with the Statue of Unity. He called it a “conspiracy” to grab tribal lands. These projects include the setting up of a railway line connecting Vadodara, Dabhoi, Chandod, and Kevadia and a proposed tiger safari among others.
The most important issue addressed by Vasava’s manifesto is water scarcity. Despite Chhota Udepur being a district on the Narmada basin with a major canal passing through, the villages here face acute water scarcity. “Their borewells have gone dry. The lack of local leadership has meant that their voice has not reached Parliament,” Vasava says. “Even the Hanfeshwar water pipeline project is only going to benefit Dahod. But what about Chhota Udepur?”
Vasava filed his nomination from the constituency after the BTP’s original candidate Narendra Rathwa was booked under PASA (Prevention of Anti Social Activities Act) and arrested minutes before he could complete his nomination at the district collector’s office. Rajesh Vasava is up against Geeta Rathwa of the BJP, which is trying to retain its seat for a third consecutive term, and Ranjitsinh Rathwa of the Congress. This is the first Lok Sabha election where voters of Chhota Udepur constituency have three new candidates – the constituency has always seen a contest between Naransinh Rathwa of the Congress party and Ramsinh Rathwa of the BJP since 1991.