A street, lined with shops and residential flats above them, has been cordoned off for a public meeting to be addressed by the former Gujarat Chief Minister and now Gujarat Parivartan Party leader (GPP), Keshubhai Patel. As dusk falls over Pani Na Ghoda, rows of sadhus , Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders and local grandees from the influential Leuva Patel community pack the makeshift stage. The street fills up, and a never-ending line shuffles up to Mr. Patel to felicitate him with a shower of flowers, garlands, even a sword. The crowd cheers.
As people look down from their balconies, all the speakers focus on the water crisis — the severe shortage of drinking and irrigation water, they say, has ruined their crops and forced farmers to commit suicide. Senior RSS leader Praveen Maniar compares Mr. Modi to Hitler, and pitches into Bharatiya Janata Party MP Navjot Singh Sidhu for calling Keshubapa — as he is known here — a traitor. (Both Mr. Maniar and Praful Sejaliya, who heads the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, an RSS outfit, are with Mr. Patel.
This is the heart of Saurashtra which, along with Kutch, holds the key to the Gujarat elections. For, it will send 54 MLAs to the 182-member Assembly from the eight districts of Surendrangar, Rajkot, Amreli, Bhavnangar, Junagadh, Porbandar, Jamnagar and Kutch. In 2007, before delimitation, it sent 58. It is home to the numerically strong Leuva Patels, traditional BJP supporters, with strong interests in agriculture, industry and the diamond business. Indeed, it is the Patels of Saurashtra who are the backbone of the diamond industry in Surat in south Gujarat. In 2007, the BJP won 43 seats in the Saurashtra-Kutch belt, the Congress 14 and the Nationalist Congress Party one.
This time, the Congress is pinning its hopes on the GPP wresting a few seats from the BJP, and shaving off votes from the latter’s candidates so that it can double its tally from the region. Little wonder, the Congress is concentrating on this region. Party president Sonia Gandhi has already addressed rallies here in Rajkot and in Junagadh, and general secretary Rahul Gandhi will travel to Jamnagar and Amreli on Tuesday.
Mr. Keshubhai Patel’s exit from the BJP — which he helped build in Gujarat — has been a blow to the ruling party, and his GPP is seen as the main reason why Mr. Modi was unable to deny ticket to many sitting MLAs, who have grown unpopular over the last five years. In 2007, Mr. Patel was merely a dissident; this time, he is being taken more seriously now that he has formed his own party. Mr. Modi, who attacks the Congress daily, has refrained from attacking Mr. Patel, aware of his hold over his community as well as strong ties with the RSS.
Here at Pani na Ghoda, on December 6, when the 84-year-old Keshubapa starts speaking, the audience hangs on to his every word as he reminds the people of how much he has done for farmers in the region. Careful not to alienate non-Patels, he stresses that the neglect of Saurashtra by the Modi regime affects all castes, and not just the Patels. He points out that in an age when even cloth does not sell at Rs. 2 a metre, farm lands in this area have been given to the Adanis at Rs. 2 a square metre. And then he does one better than Mr. Maniar and compares Mr. Modi to Goebbels. As Mr. Patel drops his voice to explain Goebbels’ technique of repeatedly telling lies till until they appeared to be the truth, the crowd roars with laughter and cheers him on. A man standing next to me says: “Modi will lose 125 per cent.”
Whether Mr. Modi will lose or not is another matter. But it is clear, as I travel through a swathe of Saurashtra, that with the crippling water crisis and spiralling prices fuelling the anger against the incumbent government, the GPP and to some extent the Congress are creating an undercurrent of resentment. If the Leuva Patels are vociferous in opposing Mr. Modi, some of the other communities also express their feelings in a more moderate language.
In Surendranagar district’s Vithalgad village, for instance, dominated by the Kolis, Bhadwads and Dalits, one man steps forward to say Mr. Modi has done a great deal of vikas (development). The others burst into laughter and tell me that the first speaker, a milkman, has indeed progressed because the price of milk has doubled but they haven’t. When another man says there has been no corruption in the Modi regime, the others castigate him as a dalal (a middleman). Then the conversation turns to Adani and how he got land at a throwaway price.
Near Gondal town, in Rajkot district, when I introduce myself to a group of Leuva Patels, who have gathered at a brand new cooperative housing society in which they have all bought flats, they all try to outshout one another to say that the only person who has done anything for the farming community is Keshubapa and that Mr Modi’s focus has been big industry, not the aam admi . “Listen, don’t just write this — go and meet Mr. Modi and give him a personal message from us,” is Rameshbhai Patel’s parting shot to me.
In Keshod in Junagadh district, a group of Ahirs says the only progress the people have seen in the neighbourhood is the highway that links Verawal to Jetpur, but where they live in — and they gesture to the potholed road — there has been no development.
And in Pania in Amreli district, villagers tell me that they are determined to see that the sitting BJP MLA, Dilip Sanghani, is defeated: he is “corrupt” and there is no water and electricity.
If the GPP and the Congress are tapping this anger, there is also Naresh Patel, a wealthy businessman and prominent Leuva Patel leader, who has been working for a year to “unite” them through the construction of a temple dedicated to the goddess they worship. Publicly, he is quick to say he is not telling people which way to vote. “Members of the community should decide on the basis of candidate, priorities of the entire community and the threats they face as a community,” he says. What are those problems? “I mean largely the problem of land-grabbing, the financial burden on farmers, rampant loot, suicides. The Leuva Patels need to unite so that they can deal with threats collectively. I am trying to bring unity in the community.” The message seems to be clear.