NATIONAL

North Gujarat may prove crucial for BJP

MEHSANA Dec. 7. North Gujarat, the hotbed of communal riots and the home region of sworn enemies, the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, and the State Congress president, Shankarsinh Waghela, is likely to prove crucial for the BJP in its bid to retain power in the December 12 Assembly elections.

The ruling party must at least retain the seats it held in the dissolved Assembly from north Gujarat, if not improve upon it, considering that in central Gujarat it may be able to partly make up the losses it is almost certain to suffer in the Kutch-Saurashtra region. Any further loss in the north may make it tougher for the BJP.

The Congress believes that despite the communal riots, there was no `Hindutva' wave and that caste factors will decide the candidates' fortunes. It hopes to increase its tally from the present 13 to at least 22 to 27.

The BJP and the Congress are concentrating in this region, considering its strategic importance and the possibility of a `vote swing' based on communal lines. Mr. Modi has touched almost every constituency in the region in the four laps of his `gaurav rath yatra'. The Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, is addressing two meetings, one at Hadad in the first leg of her campaign, and the other at Mehsana tomorrow. Mr. Waghela has made a whirlwind tour of the region besides other Congress leaders, including party Chief Ministers from other States.

A major advantage for the Congress is the polarisation of the Muslim votes in the region where they have a large chunk of votes in almost every constituency. A Muslim hotel owner in Vadali said that normally they would not go to Siddhpur, some 100 km away, to cast their votes. But this time, he and his three brothers and their families have made it a point to drive down to exercise their franchise.

A large number of Chelliah Muslims, who owned a chain of hotels in different parts of north Gujarat, suffered heavy damage and have shifted their business outside the State. But they are expected to return and influence the other Muslims in voting against the BJP en block.

The farmers, who faced acute power shortage, may also have a major say on polling day. They had a bad monsoon year and had to depend on power supply to draw ground water to save their standing crops. But the erratic power supply spelt doom for them. As Bholabhai Vasava, a farmer in Idar in Sabarkantha district, considered to be a BJP stronghold, said, ``what of the Hindutva if we can not save our standing crops.''

This is an indication that some eight months after the riots, local problems are taking priority over communal sentiments even among the tribals who the BJP was hoping would cross over to its side.

In many of the interior villages, such as Bhadramar in a remote corner in Danta taluk in Banaskantha district, the BJP is still to make inroads and they have not heard of anything else other than the ``hand'' symbol.

But the Congress has its own problems in urban centres, particularly where the communal sentiments are still strong among the people, barring the trading community which lost business during the riots.

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