Gujarat Elections 2017: Banking on 'activists' Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani may prove costly for Congress
Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakor may have been stellar Dalit and OBC activists, but their maiden run in politics has hit some bumpy patches, with the hype that surrounded them in Gujarat on the wane now
Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakor may have been stellar Dalit and OBC activists, but their maiden run in politics has hit some bumpy patches. The hype that surrounded them, with the national media building them up as key players in the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections, is on the wane now.
Mewani and Thakor were supposed to be the two lieutenants of Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat; while Mewani was to bring Dalit votes to Congress, Thakor would deliver OBCs.
Mewani and Thakor, it was perceived, would be gung-ho about their chances, waiting eagerly for 18 December, when votes are counted. They should have been confident of winning the Vadgam and Radhanpur constituencies respectively, and prepare for taking oath as first-time MLAs.
However, the reality on the ground is a bit different. After travelling extensively through Gujarat and talking to people in the state, Firstpost found that the situation isn't very favourable to Mewani and Thakor. In fact, the two "young turks" are in real danger of losing their respective constituencies.
And if Mewani and Thakor can't win their own constituencies — despite the favourable caste combinations in these seats working their favour — how can they be expected to have the capacity to transfer Dalit and OBC votes to the Congress party, as has been claimed about them? That won't come as good news for the Congress, particularly since the party is much better placed in 2017 than it was in 2012, 2007 or 2002.
Thakor has officially joined the Congress and is contesting on the party's ticket. Mewani, though contesting as an Independent, has the backing of Congress and Aam Aadmi Party. He also chose a constituency considered a "safe seat" for the Congress. It's reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates, and has a high percentage of Muslim voters (25 percent of the electorate). The Dalit population is also substantial here. Except one occasion, Congress has never lost Vadgam.
But there are three things that may impact his fortunes. First, he is considered an outsider, someone who isn't from the constituency. Secondly, he has a reputation of being divisive (ye ladwata hai, they say about him). And finally, a word-of-mouth and social media campaign that sought to paint him as being "anti-Hindu". A video had even gone viral where Mewani had purportedly said that if he had two sisters, he would have married one to a Hindu and one to a Muslim.
In fact, at Sedrasan, locals refused to let Mewani enter the village unless he chanted "Jai Shri Ram". After prolonged arguments, Mewani finally had to leave without getting a chance to visit the village.
A group of young men, led by one Sushil Prajapati, go to great lengths to explain why Mewani — an "anti-Hindu" outsider — must be defeated in the election. He narrates the Sedrasan incident and also shows me the video to substantiate his point. Near him is an older Dayarambhai Prajapati, who has a slightly different take on the subject. "We should all unite to vote for (Narendra) Modi," he says. "He has done so much development work, and his men should be given the chance to take forward the schemes initiated by Modi, as both chief minister and prime minister."
Then there is Saurabhai, a trader who is optimistic about Mewani's chances. "It's simple arithmatic," he explains. "Over 70,000 voters here are Muslim; 40,000 are Dalits; there are also many others who support Congress. In all, the total vote will be about 1,80,000. Tell me, how can Mewani lose?"
When told it's a reserved constituency, and all candidates, including the BJP's, are Dalits, Saurabhai responded by saying, "But Mewani is a Dalit leader."
In a village on the border of Vadgam taluka, Nathubhai Patel had a different problem with Mewani. "Ladata hai (He incites fights). He can't be trusted. He can convince Rahul Gandhi that he's a big leader, but not us. My vote is for Modi and BJP," Patel says.
When asked about a Patel throwing his weight behind BJP at a time when most members of his community are siding with the Congress, he says, "Some of us have been misguided. But they will understand later."
A short distance away is Baghabhai, an old man who was sitting on a bench with a big aluminium pot full of wheat. Having observed the people around him give their answers, he too agreed the voting pattern in this constituency could finally come down to the Hindu-Muslim divide, with voters casting their votes on communal lines. "He (Mewani) refuses to say 'Jai Shri Ram'," he says.
In some villages, posters have even come up saying "anti-Hindu" Jignesh Mewani be prohibited from entering their village.
Two-and-a-half hours away from Vadgam is Alpesh Thakor's constituency Radhanpur. Except for the "anti-Hindu" tag, the scene is roughly the same here. Thakor chose this constituency because it has 60,000 Thakor voters, with a host of other backward classes, and a significant Muslim population. But Thakor is seen as an outsider who is trying to find greener pastures here.
What's hurting him the most is a video clip that shows him standing at a public meeting and vowing before the 'Sun God' that he would never enter politics. A month later, he joined Congress.
His rival for the Radhanpur seat is a BJP candidate from the same caste, a local, Lavinji Thakor.
In Radhanpur, two youngsters — Paramhans Thakor and Harsih Chaudhary — were unanimous in their opinion that Alpesh was a "good OBC activist who rose to fame for his anti-Patidar quota stand and his fight against illicit liquor, but he spoilt his game by joining Congress and entering politics".
A little ahead, at a tea shop on the Radhanpur Palanpur Highway, Ballabhai Pharwad and his friend are vocal and hopeful about Alpesh Thakor's chances. But even here, their voices are drowned out by others who spoke about why an "outsider" wouldn't find much support here.
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