There were only a couple of days left before the town would go to polls, but there was hardly any reflection in Bhuj of the intense political tension that has gripped Gujarat. A banner here, a loudspeaker there, a few campaign vehicles meandering the streets; that apart it seemed business-as-usual for the district headquarters of Kutch.
On the surface, Bhuj and its people seem oblivious to one of the most bitterly contested elections in Gujarat's recent memory. But scratch the surface and the town reveals a deep divide on communal lines: With Muslims constituting more than 35% of the Bhuj's population, Hindus seem unnerved with the prospect of a member from the minority community getting elected. This may eventually lead them to vote for “one of their own.”
This is not a first for Bhuj. One of the reasons for the Bharatiya Janata Party winning this seat in the past might have been polarisation as the Congress is seen to be sympathetic to Muslims.
What has been forgotten amid the narrative of “our candidate vs theirs” is vikas – the development vis-a-vis 'Gujarat model' that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would never fail to talk about when he was the Chief Minister.
Bhuj discusses development only as an afterthought. The general consensus among its Hindus is to vote for the “right candidate”.
“Congress didn't leave us with any choice,” says Sanjay Shah, a prominent businessman who trades in plywood. “We were hoping they would field a deserving candidate, but their experts seem to have suggested otherwise. I hope you understand what I mean by deserving,” adds Shah, who claims to earn enough to feed his family for the next three generations.
He claims to have wanted to vote for the grand old party but changed his mind after it named Adambhai Chaki as its candidate from Bhuj Assembly constituency. Shah is not alone. There are many others who are likely to vote against the Congress candidate without even discussing his qualification or merits.
As Shah offers this correspondent a cup of sweet tea, he frequently mentions how “dhandha” – the all-important trade – has suffered since Modi surprised everyone with his decision to ban high-value currency notes. Further, a “hastily implemented” Goods and Services Tax broke the back of Bhuj's business community, according to him.
Even then he would vote for the saffron party as he thinks the Congress never learns from its “mistakes”: “Had they fielded a Hindu, the Congress would have won by a huge margin as a section of Hindus, particularly from the business community, would have voted for them in wake of the twin evils of GST and demonitisation.”
As mentioned earlier, Shah isn't alone. “He looks like a hardcore Muslim. Have you looked at his beard?” says another trader about Chaki.
So did the Congress really let go of an opportunity? Iqbal Khan disagrees.
This auto-rickshaw driver points out that the Congress lost the seat in 2012 to the BJP's Nimaben Aacharya despite fielding Amirali Hajihushen Lodhiya, a Hindu. In fact, Lodhiya lost by some 9,000 votes despite the Muslims voting him, Khan says.
He thinks Chaki got the ticket on merit and not simply because of his religion. But yes, this could also be Congress's strategy to keep the Muslim votes from five other constituencies in Kutch with the party. Overall, the district has a 22% Muslim population.
Aacharya is back in the fray and Khan thinks she has a better chance to win because of development. “The BJP has provided electricity, water and road to villagers. Farmers have also benefited a lot,” he points out.
So what about the Dalits and Patidar? Would they vote the Congress? That would be something Khan says as his eyes light up: “Patidars voting a Muslim would be a dream-come-true – a sign of how communal harmony was intentionally disturbed by some elements for political gains,” he says.
The Patidar conundrum
Ever since Hardik Patel mobilised the Patidar community in Gujarat, the BJP has been worried. The Patidars do hold the key to Bhuj but then, as Ramesh Ahir points out, there is the “Patidar conundrum”.
Ahir, a farmer who also works with a cooperative association to make ends meet, explains how the Leva Patidar in Bhuj outnumber the Kadava Patidar – the ones at the forefront of the Patidar movement.
In the Bhuj constituency, there are only 3,444 Kadva voters as compared to 31,372 Leva voters. According to Ahir, if a section of Patidars and Dalits vote the Congress, it would ensure its victory, but feels that it is unlikely that Leva Patidars will vote the Congress.
When the BJP announced Aacharya's candidature, the Levas did rumble at being denied a ticket again. In fact, Ramjibhai Ghorasiya from among them has filed his nomination as an Independent candidate, but the BJP managed to convince him to withdraw.
On the Congress's choice of candidate, Ahir points out that in each of the Kutch's six assembly seats, the dominant communities have been given a seat: “They might have felt that a Muslim candidate could win from this seat. In fact, Adambhai was one of the top contenders and has worked really hard for the party.
The Congress has chosen a Kshatriya (Jadeja), a Patel, a Baniya, a scheduled caste and a scheduled tribe candidate respectively for the five other seats in the region. The BJP's candidate combination is similar. Except it has no Muslim.
Not expecting to win any Muslim vote, the BJP is banking heavily on Dalits, who constitute nearly 10% of the population. It won't be easy though as the community in the region primarily earn its living by weaving where income has been hit hard by the currency ban and GST.
In Bhujodia, a weaver-dominated village, 38-year-old Atubhai describes how he was yet to sell woolen products he and his family made last year. “After 8 November 2016, we lost all our business. There were no orders and the government did nothing for us. I am voting for the Congress, be what it may,” he says. The sentiment is echoed by others in the village.
A little outside Bhuj town, both Hindus and Muslims say it would be a tough fight between the two main parties. However, ask the Hindus if they would vote for Chaki and they develop cold feet. Muslims do not reveal their choice of candidate but hint at voting for one of their own.
Perhaps that explains Modi's choice of Bhuj to start his campaign. Also, why he shunned 'vikaas' for Pakistan, Islamist terrorism and the Army's missions in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath too campaigned here and did his bit in raising communal passion.