The ruling BJP in Gujarat has fielded newly-inducted young Patidar leader Hardik Patel to snatch from the Congress the Viramgam Assembly seat that had thrown up a surprise in the last election and is considered immune to caste politics as leaders from different castes and religions, including a minority community, have represented it so far.
For the 29-year-old Patel, a native of Chandranagar village of Viramgam taluka of Ahmedabad who was born and brought up in Viramgam town, it is his maiden Assembly election. He will lock horns with sitting Congress MLA Lakhabhai Bharwad, who had defeated Bharatiya Janata Party’s Tejashree Patel in 2017 by a margin of over 6,500 votes.
Viramgam Assembly segment, which comprises Viramgam, Mandal and Detroj talukas of Ahmedabad, has been with the Congress for the last 10 years. This and 92 other seats will go to polls in the second phase on December 5.
Interestingly, in the 2012 Assembly polls, Tejashree Patel had contested as a Congress candidate and defeated BJP’s Pragji Patel by a margin of more than 16,000 votes. During her tenure as the Congress MLA, she left her mark as a fierce critic of the ruling BJP, both inside and outside the Assembly.
However, to everyone’s surprise, when she switched sides and fought on the BJP ticket in 2017, voters rejected her and chose Congress’ Lakhabhai Bharwad, who belonged to the Other Backward Class (OBC).
While some voters feel that Bharwad is facing anti-incumbency now, some others say he has been active as an MLA and worked hard to resolve the local issues, and hence defeating him would not be easy for Hardik.
Viramgam comprises nearly 3 lakh voters, including 65,000 Thakor (OBC) voters, 50,000 Patidars or Patel voters, nearly 35,000 Dalits, 20,000 Bharwad and Rabari community voters, 20,000 Muslims, 18,000 Koli members and 10,000 Karadia (OBC) Rajputs.
However, this seat has so far given MLAs from different castes, including Tejashree Patel (Patidar), Daudbhai Patel (Muslim) in 1980, Kamabhai Rathod (Karadia Rajput) in 2007 and Lakhabhai Bharwad (OBC).
”People of Viramgam never vote on caste lines. That is the reason why candidates from different castes have won over the decades. Voters of this seat only see performance and commitment towards people and the party. I am confident of retaining this seat,” said Bharwad when asked if Hardik’s nomination may create trouble for him this time.
Bharwad is relying on his past performance and the work done for the people or at least raising the issues in the Assembly as well as at the local level to get a solution. Both Viramgam Municipality and Taluka Panchayat are with the BJP.
”Earlier, the condition of roads in the constituency was bad as they were not resurfaced for seven years. But due to my consistent efforts, they have been resurfaced. However, people of Viramgam town are suffering because the BJP is ruling the municipality. People are aware who is at fault and who did their work,” Bharwad said.
Some locals also endorsed Bharwad’s claims about the work he had done so far as an MLA.
”There is no doubt that Patel is more popular. But it is also a fact that Bharwad was active as an MLA and worked hard to resolve our issues, be it bad roads or overflowing gutters. We have seen him on the ground. Though he was not able to solve all the issues, people know that he had tried,” said auto driver Kantilal Parmar.
Another voter claimed that Hardik’s chances of winning had increased with the renomination of Bharwad.
”Bharwad is facing anti-incumbency. Looking at the caste equations, Congress should have fielded someone from Thakor community. Now, Hardik’s chances have gone up with Bharwad’s renomination” he said.
The Aam Aadmi Party is also in the fray, which initially gave ticket to one Kunvarji Thakor, before suddenly replacing him with Amarsinh Thakor.
Kunvarji was unhappy with the development and decided to fight as an independent. In 2017, he had contested as an independent and secured the fourth place with 10,800 votes.
One Kirit Rathod, a known Dalit activist from Viramgam, is also in the fray as an independent.
Many believe that this trio, if they remain in fray, can disrupt the voting equations and give unexpected results.
The last date to withdraw nomination is November 21.
Hardik, who rose to prominence after leading the Patidar reservation agitation seeking OBC status for Patidar caste, joined the BJP in June after being with the Congress for nearly two years.
He is now touring villages of the region. In the ”list of promises” issued by him, the first one says he will make sure that Viramgam gets the status of a district and rural people are already thanking Patel for taking up this issue.
”Viramgam is big enough to be declared as a separate district. People have been demanding it for some time. This will resolve many of our problems because we have to travel all the way to Ahmedabad for various works related to the collector office or for court related matters. Hardik has rightly taken up the issue,” said Amrat Patel, a local farmer.
Other key promises include building a modern sports complex, schools, 50-bed hospitals each in Mandal taluka, Detroj taluka and near Nal Sarovar, 1,000 government houses in Viramgam town, industrial estate, gardens, among others.
Notably, the four-page leaflet of promises does not find any mention of the word ”Patidar” in it. In his short bio, it is mentioned that he was born in a ”Hindu family” in Gujarat and his late father Bharatbhai was an active BJP worker of this region.
Hinting at the EWS (economically weaker sections) quota introduced in Gujarat after his agitation for reservation, the leaflet says Hardik’s ”historic agitation” was instrumental in providing many benefits to not just one but several communities.
”Our campaign is going very strong and people are showering their blessings on Hardik. People are not happy with Congress MLA and they want a change this time. We are confident that people of Viramgam seat will vote for Hardik and once again bring BJP to power in the state,” said Hardik’s campaign manager Dipak Patel.