Firebrand Dalit leader banks heavily on Muslim support

VADGAM: Driving on SH 712, heading southeast from Palanpur, headquarters of Banaskantha district, comes a fork on the road which reads: “Vadgam 5km, Vadnagar 54km”. In Gujarati, Vadgam is ‘village of banyan trees’ and Vadnagar is ‘town of banyan trees’, now famous as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hometown.

Congress is out of the picture, at least officially, having decided to back Dalit activist and independent candidate Jignesh Mevani – an emerging figure in the 2017 assembly polls along with Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor.

Vadgam, reserved for scheduled castes, is one of the nine assembly seats in Banaskantha district, which had given Congress more seats than the BJP in 2012 – five versus four. Congress also had a greater vote-share here, 43.65% to BJP’s 41.5%. In the byelection for Deesa seat , necessitated by Liladhar Vaghela becoming the Banaskantha MP in 2014, Congress further improved the score to six-three.

Apart from the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Mevani’s former political party, had also withdrawn their candidate. Mevani and his team, comprising a few JNU students, have been getting good response from the Muslims who form the largest chunk with 65,000 votes out of a total of 2.61 lakh votes. The seat also has 43,000 Dalits, 25,000 Chaudharies, 21,000 Thakors, 13,000 Darbars, 9,000 Prajapatis and 4,000 Brahmins.

Mevani, a vocal critic of caste system and radical elements of Hindutva, has been facing wrath of voters in some villages with banners posted at gates barring his entry, terming him as “Hindu-Virodhi”. A video clip of Mevani’s speech which he delivered during the Una protest after the gruesome flogging over alleged cow slaughter is also doing rounds in social media. “If I had two sisters, I would definitely get one of them married a Muslim,” he is quoted as saying.

In 2012, Congress’s Manilal Vaghela defeated then BJP minister and Dalit heavyweight Fakir Vaghela by 21,839 votes. After initially naming Manilal for Vadgam, Congress has moved him to Idar in neighbouring Sabarkantha district to make way for Mevani.

Manilal said, “Initially the decision was demoralizing for party workers, but now they are back on the ground in favour of Mevani.”

In 2007, Fakir Vaghela had defeated Congress’s Dolat Parmar by 9,704 votes. A strong independent candidate, Dinesh Parmar, who polled 16,372 votes, made all the difference.

Dolat had won Vadgam in 2002, 1998, 1985 and 1980. In 2017, his son Ashwin, still a primary member of the Congress, has thrown his hat in the ring as an independent. Squaring off against Parmar and Mevani, is BJP’s Vijay Chakravarti. Chakravarti too is a former Congressman, who joined the BJP four years ago.

At a thinly-attended election meeting in Gadalwada village, Chakravarti reinforced his speech with a veiled threat. “Remember how Fakir Vaghela met his constituents every Friday, you people know well that Friday is not an auspicious day for us. It is inauspicious for us. You understand it better. With your permission, I will change this to every Thursday. I will meet you people every Thursday.”

After his address was completed, a few villagers confronted Chakravarti about his new-found saffronization. “Weren’t you in the Congress for a long time?” asked some. Chakravarti beat a hasty retreat. Chakravarti, who earlier worked for the Regional Transport Office, has a case of disproportionate assets pending against him.

“The main issue in this area is the scarcity of water. Other major issues here are the lack of proper education and health facilities. I will oppose the privatization of education and see to it that government schools, colleges and health facilities are set up and run properly,” says Mevani.

Ishaq Maradia, the sarpanch of Nargol village, says “Muslims are fully behind Jignesh. We are going to make every effort for him to win.” He said out of 17 candidates who filed nominations as independents, only three remain as the rest were persuaded to withdraw in favour of Mevani.

Premji Pavaya, an affluent farmer from Ramnagar village, says, “We Chaudharies have always been BJP voters because our community leaders direct so.”

Piyush Khatri, 42, a businessman, says, “Jignesh is popular, but he doesn’t have the backing of a strong symbol. Not many people know Chakravarti, but he has a strong symbol behind him. Ashwin Parmar has the support of some local Congressmen and he will divide the votes, so this triangular fight could go anywhere.”

Parmar says, “An audio clip of mine has been circulated saying that I am contesting because someone has paid me to, but I don’t want to speak about all of these baseless accusations. Jignesh is from Ahmedabad and Chakravarti is from Kutch. I am a local.”
Keshar Chaudhary, a farmer in Jalotara village, says “This Jignesh Mevani says anti-Hindu things so many villages are against him and don’t even allow him to enter.”
Rafiq Dokka, 35, who works for the Jasleni milk collection centre and keeps cattle, says “There is definitely a gau-rakshak menace. While no specific incidents have taken place in this particular area, there is always some fear when transporting animals. We are the first to be targeted.”

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