North Gujarat is considered a big hurdle for the BJP, not just because the Congress has traditional support in the region but also because the Patidar agitation started here, in Mehsana to be precise. Even the OBC front floated by Alpesh Thakor, who has now joined the Congress, has its origins here.
An island of BJP support in this Congress stronghold has been Vav, held by Health Minister Shankar Choudhary. Before delimitation, he held the nearby Radhanpur seat, where Mr. Thakor is contesting now.
Mr. Chaudhary, a BJP veteran, is trying not just to retain his own seat but also to ensure the defeat of Mr. Thakor.
“In 1995, when Shankarsinh Vaghela left the BJP and joined the Congress, Shankar bhai Chaudhary was picked to fight the byelection against him from Radhanpur. He earned his political chops in this very tough election and lost by a margin of only 8,000 votes. It was a trial by fire and for such a young leader to strongly challenge someone of Mr. Vaghela’s stature meant that he had what it takes,” Rameshbhai Jakeshra, a social worker of Singaon taluka, says.
Mr. Chaudhary subsequently went on to capture the Banas Dairy cooperative and the Banas cooperative bank in the area, again something that had been considered a Congress stronghold.
“ Sahkar [cooperative] aur Sarkar [government] dono main Shankarbhai ka dabdaba hai [Shankarbhai is influential both in cooperatives and government],” Kishore Bhai Vyas, a local BJP member, says.
This old connection with Radhanpur, which belongs to the neighbouring Patan district, is what the BJP wants Mr. Chaudhary to leverage and ensure that the Hardik-Alpesh effect does not get hold.
Mr. Chaudhary is in touch with community leaders from Radhanpur as well. “During the recent floods, when Congress MLAs were hidden away in a resort in Bengaluru [during the Rajya Sabha polls that resulted in Ahmed Patel’s election to the Upper House], it was Shankar bhai who helped evacuate at least 10,000 people in the district to higher ground,” Mr. Vyas says.
Mr. Chaudhary, in his constituency, has been pitted against Geniben Thakore, who belongs to the dominant Koli Thakor community of the area. While some supporters of his do worry that the caste arithmetic (Koli Thakors make up 71,000 of the 2,52,000 voters) may trump Mr. Chaudhary’s carefully constructed and tenaciously held sphere of influence, others dismiss any such possibility.
The Hindu caught up with Mr. Chaudhary at a community meeting with the Vaishnav Saadhu Samaj. After a general address, he met a group of elders from each village in the neighbourhood separately, a sheet of paper in his hands detailing the votes of each community in every one of the 180 villages in his constituency. He counts two reasons that encourage him to think of improved prospects for the BJP.
In times of need
“When the Banas river flooded over, Congress MLAs who should have been with their people were hiding in a resort. They were only worried about Ahmed Patel. The other reason is that the milk business is very important here. More than ₹500 crore is deposited in the accounts of the public here. No social coalition can trump that,” he says.
As his team carefully tots up the village-wise caste arithmetic of his rather vast constituency, the BJP is hoping that the Sahkar and Sarkar weigh heavier on the voter than any caste loyalty.