Among the 93 Gujarat seats going to polls Thursday, a showpiece is Viramgam, home to Patidar leader Hardik Patel, and site of a Maruti Suzuki car plant as well as a Japanese industrial park. The Congress is confident of victory while the BJP expects a close finish.
“There is a lot of attention on Viramgam this election,” agreed S T Patel, a former councillor of BJP-ruled Viramgam municipality. “People say this is the hometown of Hardik Patel but he has little influence here. If he holds an election gathering here, he will find it difficult to gather 200-300 people.”
One of 21 constituencies in Ahmedabad district, Viramnagar has 2.71 lakh voters, about one-eighth of them Patidars, while Thakors are the largest segment accounting for more than one-sixth of the electorate. Among the BJP’s worries is a local Rajput candidate who is contesting as an independent.
“When I say we will win, I am not claiming a huge margin. We expect the victory margin to be between 2,000-3,000 votes. It will be that close,” said Patel. He also took note of complaints against the performance of the BJP-led Viramgam municipality in the two years since being elected. “But, in a polarised town as ours, all Hindus will end up voting for the BJP,” he hoped.
That day, Patel was the only person manning the party office in the Viramgam town where temple masts and domes of mosques coexist in close vicinity. Jilubhai Desai, who provides cable TV services and declares himself a Narendra Modi fan, later walked into the BJP office.
Patel agreed that the BJP might be banking too much on the “clean image” of candidate Dr Tejashreeben Patel, the sitting MLA from Viramgam. She had won the seat as a Congress candidate in 2012, then quit before the Rajya Sabha polls in August this year and joined the BJP. She is pitted this time against senior Congress leader Lakha Bharwad, an OBC.
In 2012, Dr Tejashree Patel had caused surprise by trouncing the BJP candidate. The BJP used to say Hardik Patel was a protégé of Tejashree, and blamed the Congress for the Patidar agitation. “Now Tejashreeben has switched parties, but I think the BJP misses the leadership of Modi as chief minister,” said Desai, the service provider.
Elsewhere in the town, Lalabhai Jaiswal was selling lemonade from his cart. “We voted against the BJP and elected Tejashreeben last time. Then she went and joined the opposite camp. Now who will trust her?” Jaiswal said.
Amtaji Vadaniya, a labourer who attended a rally addressed by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on the outskirts of Viramgam Monday, expressed similar feelings. “I think the Congress will win this time,” he said. Asked why, he replied, “The former Congress MLA from here, Tejashreeben, was bought over by the BJP. Now do you think I will vote for her again?”
Local Congressmen such as Govind Parikh question the development model of the BJP. “The Japanese have set up an industrial park near Mandal. Maruti Suzuki has also set up a facility nearby,” Parikh said. “But these industrial units offer few job opportunities to locals. The land is taken away from us, but jobs do not come as promised.”
At his rally Monday, Rahul alleged 6.5 lakh acres have been acquired by the Gujarat government in the last 22 years and given away to 10 or 12 industrialists. He said the Gujarat government has been too liberal in accommodating the Tata Nano project in Sanand next door. “Neither you nor the farmers get Narmada waters. But Tata Nano gets it. You get electricity at night, Tata Nano gets 24-hour power supply,” Rahul said, about the car manufacturing unit set up in 2008.
Prime Minister Modi, who addressed a rally in Sanand the day before Rahul was in Viramgam, referred to the phenomonal growth of Sanand as a manufacturing zone. Apart from Tata Nano and Ford Motors and other foreign automobile component manufactuers, FMCG companies like Colgate Palmolive, Nivea India Pvt Ltd, Nestle, Rasna, Inbisco and Chipita have set up bases.
The stretch of road between Sanand and Viramgam, once lined with farms, has now turned into a manufacturing hub with Indian and foreign car manufacturers, component manufactuers, power equipment manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and FMCG players all setting up big and small units. Recently, the state government acquired over 1500 hectares from farmers to set up a second “Japanese industrial park” near Sanand.