Gujarat polls: Will tribal strongman Chhotu Vasava retain his bastion of Jhagadiya?
Whether he makes it to the state assembly for the seventh time in a row or not, tribal strongman Chhotubhai Vasava has already made his mark in the political history of Gujarat. It was Chhotu who was the crucial voter who managed to ensure the entry of Congress heavyweight Ahmed Patel to the Rajya Sabha in July 2017.
While Chhotu won the goodwill of the Congress along with a seat sharing agreement in the current assembly polls, this former Janata Dal(United) MLA is now facing an uphill task in his efforts to retain the Jhagadiya constituency.
What's in a name?
With the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar taking control of the JD(U), Chhotu, hand-unhand with ousted party leader Sharad Yadav, has been compelled to contest on the symbol of the newly formed Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) that is led by his son Mahesh.
To make matters worse, the JD(U) has fielded his namesake as its candidate. If this isn't enough, Chhotu Vasava is facing his former lieutenant, Ravji Vasava, who is now the BJP candidate on this seat. Ravji had been Chhotu's close confidante for more than two decades.
“With the JD(U) fielding his namesake, the BJP-JD (U) have tried to confuse the voters in this tribal constituency. It is a tough task for Chhotu to make the electorate aware in just 15 days that this time his symbol is not an arrow but an auto rickshaw,” says political analyst Harish Joshi.
Chhotu's standing in the community
But Chhotu is heading into battle unnerved. He has a reputation of being a 'desi Robin Hood' in this constituency and has complete faith in the people whom he has nurtured over all these years. Ask anyone about him in and around the Maljipura, and they will guide you to his house.
In fact, this constituency is a textbook example of the reverse side of the much-hyped Gujarat model of development. As you leave the well-lit roads and modern buildings dotting the industrial areas of Ankleshwar and Jhagadiya, you enter a zone where street lights are missing and the buildings get smaller and dilapidated. The food joints that sell pizzas and burgers in Ankleshwar are no longer visible. Instead there are small carts selling chicken and eggs - staple tribal food – along with some Chinese food items. One cannot even find a tea stall after dusk.
Chhotu's house stands out as the exception. A palatial building, it has a fleet of the latest swanky cars standing outside. For the last 27 years, he has stood out as a lord in the area. He has stood above parties as he represented Gujarat Adijati Vikas Party in 1990s, then contested as an independent before moving to the JD(U). He recently moved out of JD(U) and is now contesting JD(U) seat. He had even run the local Zilla Panchayat jointly with the BJP for a decade.
Jhagadiya is a constituency reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST) having 2,31,000 voters of which 1,45,000 are tribals. 10,000 residents from Other Backward Castes (OBCs), 9,000 from Scheduled Castes (SC), 29,000 Muslims and remaining from the upper castes.
“A major set back for Chhotu this time is that Ravji is well-versed with his style of functioning. Secondly, the votes of the upper castes that earlier used to go to the Congress party are expected to move to the BJP because the Congress has an alliance with Chhotu. Another crucial factor at work here is that his staunch subordinates Mahesh Vasava, Anil Bhagat and Pravin Vasava are themselves contesting from Dediapada, Ankleshwar and Waghodia seats and are unable to devote much time to the Jhagadiya constituency,” Joshi says.
To prop up his chances, Chhotu has resorted to the narrative of the constitution of a separate state of Bhilistan by merging the tribal areas of Odisha, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
“Our party will work towards the creation of Bhilistan. Everyone knows how the tribals are being exploited and have no control over the natural resources in their respective areas. These six crore people who will comprise Bhilistan are today at the receiving end because no one has ever bothered to implement the fifth and sixth schedules of the constitution here. These schedules protect the cultural distinctiveness of the tribal population. The Gujarat government has no legal authority to either build the Narmada Dam or the Statue of Unity in the forest areas that should be under the autonomous control of the tribals,” he told Catch. His son Mahesh is the head of the Bhilistan Tiger Sena.
“Gujarat has a tribal population at par with that of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Yet they figure nowhere in the political or developmental narrative of the state. This is something very disturbing,” said Sharad Yadav who has been campaigning for the BTP candidates.
“They steal both our votes as well as our natural wealth,” added Chhotu.
The shadow of Bihar politics is also visible in this constituency. “The lotus (BJP symbol) is stuck in the mud and they have got an oxen in Nitish Kumar to take it out,” says Chhotu. A large number of workers from Bihar who are affiliated with the Hindutva organisations are campaigning in this part of the state for the BJP.
The BJP campaign in this area is weaved around development with the party workers calling for their candidate's victory to join the main stream of development in Gujarat.
“Ravji is playing the employment card very effectively. He has been interacting with the industrialists in Ankleshwar and Jhagadiya industrial estates asking them to recruit the tribal youth from his constituency while promising that they would not create any trouble or unrest. He has also adopted the BJP style of micro management in his constituency,” says a senior political analyst working with a media house in Surat.
A game of revenge
Sources say that the BJP's national president Amit Shah is very keen to win the seat as a revenge for Ahmed Patel's victory in the Rajya Sabha polls that proved to be the failure of his own strategy to win all the seats in the Rajya Sabha polls. In fact, the Congress owes a major part of its revival in the state to the boost it got from Ahmed Patel's victory.
Sources say that that Amit Shah in his meetings with the party functionaries in Bharuch district has been saying that he wants the Jhagadiya seat as a gift.
The campaign in this constituency is low key with the party offices closing down early in the evenings and the workers spreading to the villages to convince the voters. The BJP office in Valiya was shut at 8 pm when this reporter landed there and that too on the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the area.
The election to Jhagadiya seat has emerged as a high profile contest because of the national political dimensions attached to it. It remains to be seen whether Chhotu Vasava is able to retain his citadel that he has been holding since 1990 or the BJP manages to snatch it away through his former lieutenant.
The fielding of his namesake who is a farm labourer on a JD(U) ticket is another one of BJP's tricks. The BJP seems to be adhering to the saying that all is fair in love and war. This time around the war is to save its fortress of Gujarat that was invincible over the last 22 years but is now facing a formidable assault by the Congress.