While the ruling BJP and Opposition Congress are locked in a battle to win Banaskantha Lok Sabha seat bordering Pakistan, which the two parties have won twice since 1998, their respective candidates — Parbatbhai Patel of the BJP and Parthibhai Bhatol of the Congress — have been close friends for years. Both also represent the same community — Chaudhary or Anjana Patel that constitutes nearly 13 per cent of the total votes in the constituency, only second after Thakor votes with around 18 per cent.
Bhatol had been eyeing BJP ticket to contest from the seat, and also had the backing of his friend Parbat. But after BJP named Parbat as its candidate, Bhatol got the Congress ticket to take on his friend-turned rival.
As friends have taken different paths, they are campaigning differently, too. While Bhatol is visiting small villages, holding ‘khatla baithaks’ with village community leaders, Scheduled Castes community; Patel, on the other hand, is targetting talukas and zilla panchayat, appealing sarpanches to vote for him.
Bhatol was not in the mainstream politics. He was chairman of Banaskantha District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union Limited known as Banas Dairy, for 24 years from 1991-2015. Patel’s political career dates back to1985 when he was first elected as a Congress MLA from Tharad constituency in Banaskantha district. The 70-year-old joined the BJP in 2000 after a stint as an Independent MLA between 1995 and 2000. Since he joined the BJP, he has won Assembly elections thrice — once from Vav and twice from Tharad. At present, the Minister of State for Water Supply and Irrigation, Patel has been minister four times, under both Congress and BJP governments.
“Yes, we were friends but not now,” says Patel when asked about his friendship with Bhatol. “We were friends till we were in the BJP… He is either with me or against me,” he quickly adds as he speaks to The Indian Express.
“This is Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi battle. I do not count Parthibhai (Bhatol) anywhere. I believe that we are both from the same community and if he is contesting because of me, then it is fine,” Patel says discounting any possibility of Bhatol weaning away the votes from his community. “If he was with me, then I would have benefitted much. He can take some votes from Palanpur area, but everyone is with Modi,” he adds.
Though the constituency is dominated by Thakors numerically, such is the political hold of Chaudhary (Patel) community that the BJP has been fielding candidates from this community since last seven Lok Sabha elections. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Haribhai Chaudhary of the BJP won from the seat for fourth time, but this time, the BJP dropped him and instead chose to field Patel from the same community.
“Haribhai hardly did any work for his community (Anjana Patel). It was very difficult for the BJP to win if he was repeated this time,” says one the 40-odd sarpanches gathered to meet Patel at Vasan Kuda village.
Former minister Shankar Chaudhary, who has been Banas Dairy chairman since 2015, was also in the race for the BJP ticket. Bhatol’s supporters say that the real contest is not between him and Patel, but with Shankar Chaudhary, who is backing Patel.
Bhatol has been focussing on minority, Dalits and his 24-year-long association with Banas Dairy. “You have seen the Modi government has done nothing for poor, it is for industrialists, rich people. So, this time (Congress chief) Rahul Gandhi has promised that when they will come to power they will waive farmers loans, deposit Rs 6,000 every month to accounts of 25 crore people through NYAY scheme,” Bhatols tell villagers at Kant as he touches upon issues like GST, demonetisation and Modi’s 2014 slogan of “Acche Din”.
But, the gravest issue plaguing Banaskantha is the ongoing water crisis. “We expect our MP to look into the water issue. The canals constructed under the Sujalam Sufalam scheme does not have any water. Even Narmada water has not reached all our villages, thus leading to a serious issue of draining of the water table. Water recharging is urgently required as the village ponds are dry,” says Zorabhai Desai, president of Lakhani taluka Sarpanch Association.
The BJP candidate also doesn’t talk about these local issues. Instead, he tells voters “there is no second option, but Narendra Modi”.