Geniben Thakor: The giant killer

The Congress leader denied the BJP a hat-trick clean sweep of Gujarat by winning the Banaskantha constituency

Updated - June 09, 2024 11:23 am IST

Published - June 09, 2024 02:49 am IST

An illustration of Geniben Thakor.

An illustration of Geniben Thakor.

For the first time in a decade, the Congress will have a member in the Lok Sabha from Gujarat. In the 2014 and 2019 elections, the BJP swept the home State of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, winning all 26 Lok Sabha seats.

However, in the just concluded national polls, Geniben Thakor, the 49-year-old Congress candidate from Banaskantha in North Gujarat denied a hat-trick sweep to the BJP, by defeating the ruling party’s Rekha Chaudhary.

“Geniben has become a giant killer not just for defeating the BJP candidate but also for smashing the BJP’s giant ego that Gujarat was theirs,” said Gulabsinh Rajput, a former Congress legislator who played a key role in Ms. Thakor’s victory from Banaskantha, a rural district where large number of residents are dependent on dairy farming and animal husbandry. The local Banas Dairy is the largest among over a dozen district milk unions that make up the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, which markets dairy products under the Amul brand.

It was in Banaskantha, where, during the campaign, Prime Minister Modi said, “If you had two buffaloes, the Congress would take away one if it is voted to power.”

Ms. Thakor comes from a lower middle-class family in Banaskantha. Thakors in Gujarat are spread in the North and Central regions and are called OBC Kshatriya. They are mainly engaged in agriculture with small holdings or are labourers in the farms.

A student of the Jain Vishwa Bharti Institute in neighbouring Rajasthan, Ms. Thakor joined the Congress as a grassroots worker. In 2012, she contested the Assembly elections from Vav constituency but lost.

Five years later, she defeated the BJP’s strongman Shankarbhai Chaudhary, who was a Minister and chairman of the Banas Dairy and Banaskantha District Cooperative Bank. In December 2022, she won again even when the Congress suffered a huge defeat in the State, winning only 17 out of 182.

In the parliamentary polls, the Congress decided to field her from Banaskantha, a seat the party last won in 2009, given her popularity and fighting spirit. Known for her rustic speech and aggressive style and seen as an approachable leader who attends social gatherings frequently, Ms. Thakor caught the fancy of her community.

Daunting challenge

Notwithstanding her popularity and the community support she enjoyed, the challenge of fighting a Lok Sabha poll was daunting on several counts. First, she hardly had any financial support to take on the BJP’s resources. Second, neither she nor the Congress party had a network of workers and leaders to match the BJP’s well-oiled election machinery.

“It was a fight between Banas Ni Ben (Sister of Banas) vs Banas Bank & Dairy. Everyone in the district knows how the BJP misused the two institutes [the diary and bank cooperatives] to win the polls and yet, the people of Banas have blessed their sister,” Ms. Thakor said.

Though Rekhaben Chaudhary was her rival, for all practical purposes, the election was between Ms. Thakor and local strongman Shankar Chaudhary, who is now the Gujarat Assembly Speaker and the head of the Banas Dairy, which has an annual turnover of over ₹15,000, and vice chairman of the Gujarat State Cooperative Bank. In Gujarat, Chaudharys are a dominant caste spread in the northern districts such as Banaskantha, Mehsana and Sabarkantha and wield considerable clout in local dairies.

To garner financial resources, Ms. Thakor crowdfunded her election, urging the public to contribute to her campaign, which she said would democratise her contest and make it participatory. “Obviously, I had to ask people to support me not only with their votes but also with their monetary contribution because the sky was the limit on the other side with the bank and dairy coffers,” she said, adding that she had urged people to make small contributions like ₹111.

“Her victory is huge considering that she was fighting not only against the BJP but also against the state machinery, bootleggers supported by the police and cooperative institutions,” said Congress leader Jignesh Mevani, who is also a legislator from Banaskantha district.

After Gujarat was separated from Maharashtra and became a State, Ms. Thakor became the second woman to win the Lok Sabha election from the Banaskantha seat. The first was Zohraben Chavda in 1962, the first and only Muslim woman to win Lok Sabha polls in Gujarat.

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