OPN Valsad 1
Valsad, May 06 (ANI): Polling officials pose for a picture after collecting the EVMs and other election materials for the 3rd phase of the Lok Sabha polls, in Valsad on Monday. Image Credit: ANI

I had no intention of going back to Valsad, but the local journalist I had kept in touch with insisted I must a visit. “It’s a completely different election,” he said, “Congress is doing well.”

The tribal-dominated Valsad Lok Sabha seat in Gujarat is a bellwether seat for India’s national elections. Whoever wins Valsad, wins India. Even when there are surprises and coalition uncertainties, Valsad manages to pick the winner.

I went to Valsad five years ago, and saw a one-sided election where voters even in remote tribal villages were repeating the lines fed by BJP workers. In the forests of Valsad where tribal youth have smartphones but no signal, they showed me the same WhatsApp propaganda videos lampooning Rahul Gandhi as the ones I was getting in Delhi.

The Bharatiya Janata Party swept that election with a huge margin of over 3,50,000 votes in 2019. And this was despite fielding the rather unpopular sitting MP, KC Patel. In 2014, Patel had won by a little over 2,00,000 votes. Those are huge margins. In 2009, the Congress had won the seat by just 7,169 votes.

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I made a brief visit to Valsad, just to be able to compare how different the election felt over last time. The Congress candidate last election, Jitubhai Chaudhari, has joined the BJP and become an MLA in the Gujarat assembly. The Congress party looks all but dead in Valsad, except for one man.

Anant Patel is such a popular tribal politician here that 5 years ago, I had forecast he will soon be in BJP. The BJP, he says, has tried everything to make him switch, but he thinks he can best protect the interests of the tribal community in south Gujarat by staying in opposition. Even Congress workers will tell you they are upbeat not on account of Congress but on account of Anant Patel.

Two Indias

The Valsad seat is divided midway by National Highway 48 that connects Surat to Mumbai. On one side are urban areas including industrial Vapi, full of migrants from north India. In many ways Valsad represents today’s India, with its extremes and inequality. Tribal forests with unemployed youth are divided by factory-filled urban enclaves with just a highway. Among the few things that unite them is a Lok Sabha election, when differences are negotiated through electronic voting machines.

The Bharatiya Janata Party sweeps the urban areas entirely. The Congress barely has any workers in the area. When the counting takes place, the urban booths are counted first, building up a formidable lead for the BJP.

The tribal areas are often split between the BJP and the Congress. When the BJP loses, it is often because of low voter turnout in the urban areas.

The time in Valsad, just like last time, there were flags of only one party everywhere, the BJP. There are Ram Mandir flags in the deep forests. But the mood is different from last time. The tribals voting for BJP sound defensive, almost apologetic. They link every government benefit they get to the BJP.

Unlike last time, nobody says they are voting Modi because they find Rahul Gandhi incompetent. While the spontaneous contrasting has gone away, nobody mentions Rahul Gandhi in any context.

Part of the lack of enthusiasm among BJP supporters is because the BJP candidate, Dhawal Patel, is an ‘outsider’ they don’t know. He is an MBA type from Surat, someone who is said to have impressed Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his social media activism for the BJP.

BJP workers cleverly countered the outsider tag by claiming he’s very much from Valsad, from so and so area. In our polarised times, voters choose their truth.

The best candidate

Between Dhawal Patel and Anant Patel there is little doubt who the better candidate is, at least for tribal voters. Anant Patel proudly calls himself an agitationist, “andolankari”, kicking up a storm if a tribal house is demolished.

Among the reasons for his popularity are various land acquisition projects for building dams and other forms of development. Tribals want their due in this journey of development.

Congress supporters in Valsad feel Anant Patel has managed to consolidate tribal voters and is giving the BJP a run for its money. The margin of victory, whoever wins, they feel, is going to be slim.

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But Dhawal Patel has the advantage of being backed by a party rich in resources, one that is in power in both the centre and state. The BJP realised there is some trouble here and doubled down on the seat.

Teams from Delhi made visits, reading the riot act to local BJP leaders and MLAs, telling them there will be consequences to their growth prospects in the party should the BJP suffer setbacks in their respective pockets. Home Minister Amit Shah addressed a rally.

Priyanka Gandhi made a pit stop too, but Anant Patel suffers from not having a popular national leader backing him. The absence of Congress flags tells the story of a weak organisation and lack of resources.

All these factors in Valsad are also true nationally for this election. The BJP has parachuted unknown candidates in many places, and this is one of the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm among BJP supporters and voters.

Valsad tells you it’s never over, it’s never too late. There will always be issues, opportunities and circumstances to change parties and governments. The Congress is just not ready for the fight. Not yet.

Valsad voted along with the rest of Gujarat on 7 May. At 72%, it saw the highest voter turnout in Gujarat, although 3% points less than last time.

The urban areas saw a considerably lesser turnout than the tribal areas. Congress supporters are still hopeful of a surprise. BJP supporters think they’re winning by around 250,000 votes, only 50,000 less than last time. We’ll know on 4 June.