"Narendra Modi ji will come and cry," predicts OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, seated inside a swiftly moving SUV on the Radhanpur-Patan highway. "That is his final weapon. He will come to Gujarat, shed tears and seek votes in the name of his own asmita," he says. "But voters are now asking, 'Modi ji, tamari izzat maate shu ami mariye?" (Should we die for your honour?)
Thakor, a wiry 40-year-old with a thin, angular face, is an unlikely addition to the young Gujarati leaders currently aligned against the BJP. Compared to the firebrand Hardik Patel and the combative Jignesh Mewani, Thakor's mien is more like that of a used-car salesman politely selling the latest brand in his inventory: The Congress. He talks softly, interjecting shy smiles into cogent arguments. Instead of resorting to boasts and exaggerations, he politely accepts the Congress has to overcome several challenges.
A white towel lies on the tray table in his car. He uses it to dab his face and eyes. "The campaign has already tired me out," he says. When he is told that a local news channel is running a story about a protest at one of his meetings, Thakor picks up his two cellphones and makes some calls to his contacts in the media. His voice remains calm as he argues: "Taddan khoti khabar chhe" (Please do not spread canards). When a picture is requested, Thakor asks the driver to stop the car and steps out. He poses on the highway under the fading sun.
In a state known for aggressive and arrogant, leaders, Thakor is an exception. Or so you think until he rises to speak. At a small gathering at Radhanpur, a Thakor bastion in north Gujarat, an eclectic audience applauds as he is garlanded on stage. They take out their cellphones and begin taping his speech. Within seconds, Thakor is transformed from a used-car salesman to William Wallace announcing a rebellion against Edward Longshanks.
"They say the BJP can scare you. Here I stand in front of you, not afraid to speak up against their arrogance. They say the BJP can buy you. I stand her as proof that Gujaratis can't be bought. They say the government puts its patta (leash) around others. But, I refuse to become their paaltu (pet)," he says, making the audience roar as his gravelly voice reaches a crescendo.
Thakor's addition to the Congress' league of extraordinary gentlemen alongside Hardik Patel in this election is ironical. In 2015, Thakor started his movement as a counter to Hardik's demand for reservation for Patidars. (Later he became an anti-addiction activist.) As leader of the state's nearly 40 percent OBCs, Thakor was concerned that Patidars may be extended quota benefits at the cost of his community. Today, like a sheep and a lion drinking at the same pond, he and Hardik are jointly supporting the Congress.
"There is no conflict. Both of us are talking about the youth, farmers, unemployment, education and dignity. There are 50 lakh unemployed youth in Gujarat. Our movement is for the right to a dignified living for all of them," Thakor says. Thakor argues that his entry into the Congress would bring an additional 15-20 percent voters from his community to the Congress. Hardik's support would lead to a gain of another 15-20 percent and these gains would be enough to defeat the BJP. "I see the Congress winning 125 seats," he predicts.
The consensus among Gujaratis is that the Congress' optimism seems premature. An Ahmedabad-based journalist derides these youth leaders as "children jumping around in excitement." "When their uncle hits the campaign trail, they will see Gujarat slipping away from Congress yet again," the journalist adds.
But Thakor says Modi has lost his touch and his campaign would not have any impact. "You should see the smirk on the voters' faces when we talk about Modi ji's broken promises. They say, he is a jaadugar (magician) who promised to conjure an elephant but couldn't even produce a bird. Now, his only option to make sentimental appeals." His listeners respond by chanting: Congress aave chhe, Modi jaave chhe.
Thakor tells the roaring crowd this election is a fight between Gujaratis and the BJP. "Don't get misled by tears, appeals for saving Modi ji's asmita. This time we don't want a meri (mine) or teri (yours) government. The time has come for apni sarkar (our government)."
Updated Date: Nov 25, 2017 08:34 AM