In Gondal city near Rajkot, a Muslim man standing by the polluted river lifts one leg, shakes it to mimic a lame person. “Congress has become lula-langda,” he says, Hindi for disabled.
He points to a Muslim butcher’s shop across the street. It has a large Bharatiya Janata Party flag flying over it. You wouldn’t know it was a butcher’s shop unless you were looking for it.
“He joined the BJP ten years ago. Since then he has stopped facing any harassment from anyone,” our mimic said.
He doesn’t want to fly the BJP flag yet. This election, he says, he is voting for the Aam Aadmi Party, the 10-year-old outfit that now has as many chief ministers in India as the Congress.
To be fair, in Jindal many Muslims said they were voting for the BJP, because they have good relations with local BJP leaders, who get their work done. No wonder the BJP wins this seat handsomely.
Gondal is not your typical seat in Saurashtra, the peninsular part of Gujarat by the Arabian Sea. Saurashtra is more rural, less developed, and kinder to the Congress party than the big cities elsewhere.
The shift of even some Dalits and Muslims in Saurashtra from the Congress to the AAP is an under-reported story this election. There’s a lot of focus on urban Surat, because the AAP earlier won some municipal corporation seats there.
The loudest voices
It’s not as if the media and political pundits are not looking at Saurashtra. But if you travel in this region on the highways and speak to men assembled at chai shops, you will think it is still a BJP versus Congress election.
These public spaces are occupied by dominant communities like the Patels, who are firmly with the BJP, 100 out of 100. They will first tell you that the BJP is returning to power and then proceed to tell you that the Aam Aadmi Party is not a factor.
After a while I stopped asking them who’s winning the election. You feel foolish asking that question. This election is not to choose the government.
The BJP here is a permanent establishment, in power without a break since 1995. A former BJP chief minister is now the Prime Minister of the country. Asking who’s winning the election is like asking if it’s winter yet.
The only question worth asking: who’s number 2?
Never before have the BJP’s workers and supporters sounded so keen to be kind about the Congress.
But if you go off the highway, if you speak to the Muslim usually reluctant to talk politics, if you go looking for the Dalit settlement, you’ll hear more about Aam Aadmi Party than Congress. This is true at least in Saurashtra.
Time for change
Given the Aam Aadmi Party’s recent centre-right positioning — they are demanding a uniform civil code and religious images on currency notes — one would think that Muslims would stick with Congress. “I haven’t heard the AAP say anything against Muslims,” said a Muslim man in Jamnagar.
Sipping sugarcane juice, he said, “I shouldn’t be saying this because businessmen shouldn’t talk about politics. But I’m still saying it: the Congress has never spoken up for Muslims, no matter how much trouble we have faced. At least the AAP is standing up to the BJP.”
The AAP campaign in Rajkot district collapsed after an influential local leader, Indranil Rajguru, left the AAP to return to his original party, the Congress.
Despite that, I met many Dalits and Muslims in Rajkot saying they were voting for “parivartan”, or change. That term usually means change of government, but here it means change of opposition, or rather the change of a system where the Congress is seen to be giving the BJP an easy pass to power.
Not just Gadhvis
In coastal Jamnagar, famous for the Reliance oil refinery, the AAP is fighting a prestige battle for the Khambhalia seat. The AAP candidate here is their “chief ministerial candidate”, Isudan Gadhvi.
Political pundits in Ahmedabad will tell you that he’s losing, and if the CM candidate is losing then surely the AAP must be a distant third behind the Congress. He won’t get any votes other than his own Gadhvi community, they insist. Besides, the Congress candidate there, Vikram Madam, is a strong, veteran leader.
On a visit to Khambhalia, once again I found Muslims and Dalits moving from Congress to AAP in large numbers. In fact, out of 50-60 varied people I spoke to, not even 5 said they were voting for Congress.
Some said they liked Vikram Madam, but they wanted change, they wanted to try something new. The BJP has an edge in this seat, but travelling here you might think Gujarat politics has already shifted from BJP vs Congress to BJP vs AAP.
You see only the BJP’s flags and posters everywhere, the most visible sign of a de facto one-party rule maintained with money and muscle. We go around finding a Dalit settlement in Khambhalia town, and suddenly a lot of blue and yellow flags appear.
These are the colours the AAP is using this election. A passionate young Dalit man says he has joined the AAP for change, because have you seen how expensive LPG cylinder refills have become?
Is it only the disenchanted youth like him who are singing the new tune? We speak to the elderly in this neighbourhood and most of them say they are voting for AAP. A grumpy Congress supporter says they have all been bought over.
Boring election, interesting result
Both the AAP and the Congress are fighting localised battles, focusing their resources on some seats rather than a state-wide campaign.
On a visit to Banaskantha in north Gujarat, we did not find a shift similar to the one in Saurashtra. But when asked who they thought would be number 2 in all of Gujarat, at least in vote-share terms, even Congress voters think AAP has taken the lead over the Congress.
Everyone understands the confusion, the split of opposition votes will mean the BJP is likely to win a jackpot. Yet, BJP supporters are not happy about that prospect, not wanting to see the rise of the AAP.
Since the winner is already decided, many complain the election is boring. The result on 8 December, however, will be very interesting. It has the potential to change politics all over India, signalling whether the opposition voter has given up on the Congress or whether the AAP needs to work harder still.