Ex-minister’s arrest a key election issue in north Gujarat

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Even a fortnight ago, with assembly elections in north Gujarat scheduled for the second phase on December 6, sections of the Chaudhary community in the region were up in arms, protesting against the arrest of former home minister and caste leader Vipul Chaudhary. The arrest on September 16, for alleged financial irregularities, is now a key swing factor for the community in the polls.

The 56-year-old Chaudhary, still part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was Gujarat home minister in the Keshubhai Patel cabinet in 1995. A year later, Chaudhary sided with Shankersinh Vaghela, who rebelled against Patel, and formed a government backed by the Congress, where again he was home minister.

In early 2022, Chaudhary, who returned to the BJP in 2001 and thought he was sidelined by the party and may not get ticket this time, formed the Arbuda Sena as a “socio-political outfit” to take up issues of the community with the state government.

On September 16, Chaudhary was arrested by Gujarat’s anti-corruption branch from his residence in Gandhinagar, which alleged that as chairman of the Mehsana District Cooperative Producers Union (Dudhsagar Dairy), he had committed financial irregularities worth 750 crore between 2005 and 2016.

The FIR named his wife and son, too, but they are yet to be arrested. Vipul Chaudhary’s father Mansinh Patel had established Dudhsagar Dairy in 1960.

Since his arrest, members of Arbuda Sena, which derives its name from Arbuda Devi temple in Mount Abu in Rajasthan, considered the most significant deity of the Chaudhary community, have been protesting across north Gujarat state for his release.

“Our protest is against wrong arrest of our chairman Vipul Chaudhary. He is being victimized politically,” said Kodram Jasubhai Chaudhary, a spokesperson of Arbuda Sena. To buttress his claim, he said all accounts of the Dudhsagar Dairy are checked by an auditor and then by the registrar of cooperative societies. “If there were any irregularities, then why was action not taken against him when audit reports were submitted?” he asked. The anti- corruption branch has not responded to the Sena’s allegations.

But more significant than the claims and counterclaims about the irregularities, his continued stay in Sabarmati Jail has added to a sense of political uncertainty in 37 seats across north and central Gujarat, where the Chaudharys wield considerable political influence. The community, which considers itself akin to the Jats in northern India, is traditionally rooted to agriculture and milk production. They carry particular weight across the districts of Banaskantha, Sabarkantha, Mehsana, Gandhinagar and Patan.

Vipul Chaudhary had started the Sena in early 2022, opening offices in various districts such Mehsana, Banaskantha and Gandhinagarin north and central Gujarat, with protests organised to demand other backward class reservations in central government jobs and admissions into higher education institutions. The community already has reservation in state government jobs. The community claims that these demands were the primary reason for his arrest, organizing tractor rallies and protests from September 16 to November 15.

The Congress has claimed that his arrest was an attempt to politically control him, but on October 10, addressing a rally in Mehsana, Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched on the issue of corruption in the Dudhsagar Dairy. He congratulated the people of Mehsana of giving the “reins of the Dudhsagar Dairy to people who stopped money from being siphoned off.” The dairy is now led by Ashok Chaudhary, a BJP leader.

On November 15, the Aam Aadmi Party was expected to announce that Vipul Chaudhary would contest the Visnagar assembly at the Arbuda Sena convention (mahapanchayat) at Chaudhary’s village Charada in Mehsana district. But that did not happen.

“Arvind Kejriwal ji was supposed to participate in the Arbuda Sena convention and Vipul was to contest from Visnagar. But, I don’t know what happened,” said AAP Gujarat secretary Manoj Sorathiya.

With the political alliance unable to take root, Arbuda Sena member Ashok Chaudhary said the mahapanchayat has “decided to remain neutral.”

“Ours is a silent campaign and we have told Arbuda Sena members to not speak on the issue of arrest of Vipul Chaudhary,” said Ashok Chaudhary, a resident of Charada village, who has been associated with Vipul Chaudhary for many years. Mokjibhai Chaudhary in Kheradu village of Mehsana said there is a fear that Vipul Chaudhary may not be released from jail if his arrest becomes a political issue during the elections.

From October, around the time Modi raised the issue, pro-BJP members of the Chaudhary community have been organizing counter events, raking up the alleged corruption at the Dudhsagar dairy. “No community votes unilaterally and we believe that Chaudhary’s votes will also get divided and will not harm the BJP much,” said Ramsinh Gadhvi, a BJP leader in Mehsana district. Patidars, who had been the backbone of an anti-government agitation in the run up to the 2017 elections, have now returned to the BJP fold, he added.

“BJP is doubly careful this time,” said Ahmedabad based political commentator Ghanshyam Shah. The BJP does not want to repeat the 2017 mistake of allowing community leaders like Alpesh Thakore and Hardik Patel, both now in the BJP fold, to blow up local issues, Shah said.

“The sudden silence of Chaudharys has added a political twist as nobody knows who they will support,” He added. “They have traditionally been BJP supporters.”




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