Kapadwanj (Guj): Shankarsinh Vaghela, the Congress' campaign spearhead, is locked in a keen contest in Kapadwanj with a BJP candidate who threatens to thwart his electoral bid by splitting the Kshatriya votes, the bedrock of Vaghela's political strength.
In the assembly seat both ruling BJP and challenger Congress claim as "safe", Vaghela, a former chief minister and five-time Lok Sabha MP, twice from Kapadwanj, is engaged in a straight battle with BJP's Kanubhai Dabhi, also a Kshatriya, in a field of 10.
Congress is aiming to stage a comeback after being out of power for 22 years in the state.
Though former BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel's Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) and JD(U) have also set up their nominees, poll watchers do not give them even an outside chance of winning.
Kapadwanj assembly seat has an electorate of little over 2.42 lakh of whom OBC Kshatriyas, account for about 1.3 lakh votes and can make or break the electoral fate of candidates.
This segment, which had backed Vaghela to the hilt in Parliamentary polls, looks all set to get divided as BJP nominee belongs to the community while Vaghela is a 'Durbar' (upper caste) Kshatriya.
Dabhi is a sitting MLA from adjoining Kathlal seat and wields considerable influence over the voters of his community in the area.
Prosperous and politically powerful Patels, who have around 26,000 votes, have been traditionally voting for BJP and had not backed sitting Congress MLA from Kapadwanj, Manibhai Patel, who had won with the support of OBC Kshatriyas. Though they had not voted for Manibhai, there is resentment in the Patel community over the denial of ticket to him.
Manibhai himself, however, says he is not hurt and is the chief manager of Vaghela's campaign.
"Vaghela is too big in stature for his BJP challenger to defeat him," he told PTI seated in his party's election office at a fuel station on Kathlal-Nadiad road.
"You take it from me, this is an A plus seat for the Congress and Vaghela is sure to win from here," Manibhai said.
"Kshatriya votes will definite split, but still most will plump for Vaghela," he said, adding 24,000 Muslim and 18,000 dalit votes would also go to the party."
However, Bipinbbhai Patel, a businessman, feels the OBC Kshatriya electorate will decisively vote for Dabhi in the seat where BJP also controls the municipal body. Besides, he said, the good work done by the Modi government will also stand the BJP candidate in good stead.
"Ginning mills, oil factories, dairy farming and food processing industry have prospered under Modi. Water
availability, electricity has improved and today more han 90 percent of the villages in Kapadwanj constituency and taluka are connected with pucca roads," said Prashant Dani, a businessman.
Bharghav Bhatt, a lecturer, concurs with Dani. "What Congress governments could not do in decades, Modi did in years. 70 percent of agricultural land is covered by the Narmada canal system," he said.
Traditional BJP voters, including Patels, Banias and Brahmins have also not forgiven Vaghela for splitting the party in 1997 and forming his own Rashtriya Janata Party government with Congress support before formally joining it and becoming Union Textiles Minister. They also blame him for doing nothing for the growth of ginning industry in this cotton growing belt.
"First he split the BJP and then shifted to Congress to become a Union minister. Even as Union textile minister, Vaghela proved a failure. Cotton industry suffered under him, but things changed when Modi became chief minister," said Bipinbhai.
The BJP candidate, he said, would also benefit from Modi's connection with the place as the stalwart had spent quite some time here during his days as RSS 'Pracharak'.
However, Manibhai Patel feels Vaghela's popularity among all Kshatriya sub-castes remains undiminished and, barring a small section, the entire community would back him at the last moment. "Their's (Kshatriya's) votes have always been the deciding factor here. It was because of them that I won this seat twice in 1995 and 2007 when few Patels voted for me. Will they not vote for a leader they have revered all through his public life?" he said.
Popatbhai Durbar of Khanpur village, himself a Kshatriya, says the community will "overwhelmingly vote for Bapu (as Vaghela is fondly called). If Congress wins, he will become Chief Minister."
Mahendra Sharma, a farmer, who has always voted for BJP, said," Kapadwanj marked the sunrise of Vaghela's political career, the sunset will happen here too." Vaghela was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time from Kapadwanj in 1977.
In the 11 elections that have been held for Kapadwanj assembly seat since the creation of Gujarat in 1962, the Congress has won it six times in 1962,1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, and 2007. BJP held the seat thrice in 1995, 1998 and 2002, while Swatantra Party and Congress (O) nominees got elected once each in 1967 and 1972.