In land of diamonds and textiles, larger Guj pointers from triangular contest


It is 20 minutes past 10pm, and 38-year-old Suraj Chainani is harried. But it’s a tolerable kind of harried — the one that comes from running a booming business. He steps out of the shopping mart he owns in Jahangirpura for a breather, but has less than five minutes. He quickly checks the unread WhatsApp messages on his new iPhone, takes out a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, and lights up. In front of Chainani is a six-lane road, the hedges on the divider pruned every day, and the railings painted afresh. Towering just behind him, twinkling in the night sky, are rows and rows of apartment complexes, most built over the past 15 years. The board on one boasts a clubhouse with a swimming pool; another, a “wellness retreat centre”. It is these apartments that are evidence of Surat’s ever-expanding urban spaces, and it’s these apartments that are the source of Chainani’s prosperity.

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The bright CFL lights in his shop will stay on till 11.30pm as families saunter down from their flats for a late-night grocery run, or an ice-cream. Even five years ago, he would shut at 8pm. “At that point, my electricity bill used to be 1,500 a month. Now, it is 6,000. Which is why, with their promise of free electricity, I think maybe I should give the AAP a chance. But then, all this growth happened under the BJP. Can I really betray them?” Chainani said.

Fuelled by its diamond and textile industry and the Hazira port less than 30km away, Surat is a city bursting out of its tier-2 seams. Exit the airport, and among the first establishments one passes by are luxury car showrooms. Running right through the heart of the city is a functioning BRT system. Traffic circles are manicured, the glass facades of office buildings glinting in the sun on a workday. By night, deeply business-oriented as it is, Surat is alive well into the wee hours, the malls and shopping complexes full of customers. “There is something in the water of the river Tapi. It makes things grow,” Chainani said. “But every garden needs a gardener, even if you have water. And the BJP has always been strong here.”

Strong is an understatement

For the last decade, the BJP has dominated Surat’s politics on an unprecedented scale. In 2012, it won 15 of 16 seats in the district, sweeping all 12 city seats. In 2017, it was 15-1 too, the one seat for the Congress was the ST-reserved rural seat of Mandvi. That was an election cycle when the Congress campaign had some electricity, backed by a powerful Patidar agitation and discontent against the Vijay Rupani government. There were pre-election rumblings in Surat, but come election day, the city voted decisively for the BJP again — 12-0. It was this pattern that the region’s politics had settled into — a dominant BJP, and an ineffective Congress.

Then came the 2021 Surat municipal body elections that changed this narrative in one key way; it appeared to herald the arrival of a new Opposition. In the 2015 municipal polls, the BJP won 80 out of 116 seats, with a vote share of 51.5%, and the Congress won the remaining seats with 39.85%. But in 2021, out of the shadows emerged the AAP, winning a considerable 28.58% of the vote, and 27 seats. The BJP tally actually rose to 93 of 120, benefitting from a split in the non-BJP vote, but its vote share dipped just below 50%. The Congress was decimated — losing close to 20 percentage points of its vote share, and failing to win a single seat. It is this momentum, the sense of a party on the charge, that the AAP hopes to capitalise on.

Fifteen kilometres away from Jahangirpura is the seat of Varaccha. The roads here are considerably less polished; glass buildings give way to textile factories, homes are cheek by jowl, and children playing barefoot on the dusty streets. The boards on the grocery stores here are rickety, far from the LED signs in Jahangirpura or Adajan Gam, but importantly, they are in Hindi. Most families here are of migrants who work in the diamond or textile factories, originally from UP, Bihar or Odisha. Those who are from Gujarat are largely Patidars. And it is here that the AAP’s “guarantees” have considerable resonance.

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Jaisingh Patel is 28 years old. He moved to Surat from Bhavnagar, like his two elder brothers, five years ago. He works as a cargo loader for the textile companies, and earns 20,000 a month. He has a wife, and two young children, both under the age of four. His home has no room — every wall is a makeshift clothes stand; no peace — the children are always crying; and no real entertainment — they don’t even own a television.

“What is the use of these big buildings and wide roads? Petrol is 96 a litre, and everything is expensive. Kejriwal says that in Delhi, electricity and water are free. If electricity is free, then I will be able to buy a TV for the children. Even their leaders — Katheriya (former PAAS leader Alpesh Katheriya, fighting from Varaccha) and Italia (Gujarat AAP president Gopal Italia, fighting from neighbouring Katargam and also a former PAAS leader) talk about issues of the people. They are the ones who truly led the fight for the Patidars. They are really popular,” Patel said.

The AAP admits that its focus is to concentrate on Patidar-dominated seats where it did well in the municipal elections. “Though it is difficult to triangulate them all, our results in the municipal elections came in seven seats. These include Varaccha, Katargam and Kamrej. People have seen how the AAP councillors work selflessly, and want to reduce the disparity in treatment even within Surat. Our focus on health and education resonates with them, and we think we are in with a chance in six to seven of the 12 city seats,” AAP leader Yogesh Jadwani said.

‘What have they done wrong?’

Sitting next to Jaisingh Patel, watching a news video that begins with a bolt of lightning cleaving the images of Modi and Kejriwal apart, 34-year-old Brijlal Singh, originally from Bareilly, characterises one of the AAP’s principal problems in five words: “BJP ne bura kya kiya?(What wrong has BJP done?)”

In many ways, 2022 are a different elections from 2017, and a different time from 2021. Despite the eventual results, the 2017 elections were framed by a surging Congress, backed by an angry Patidar community and the induction of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore, and Jignesh Mevani. Rahul Gandhi was exploiting doubts against sitting chief minister Vijay Rupani, and in a state that prides itself on business, the after-effects of both demonetisation and GST. In 2021, when the municipal polls took place, India was still very much playing hide-and-seek with the Covid pandemic, the government’s response was under scrutiny.

In 2022 though, demonetisation and GST seem to have dissipated as issues, a recovering city wants to put Covid in the rear-view mirror, Vijay Rupani has given way to Bhupendra Patel, and the problems that do exist are being dismissed as issues that are beyond state control. “What can Modiji do about prices? Petrol comes from abroad and if not for him, it would be even worse. Look at America, they are close to a recession. I like Kejriwal, but I want to wait and watch before I vote for him,” Singh said.

This, then, presents the clear and ever-present danger for the AAP, and opportunity for the BJP. A meek Congress campaign means that it is the AAP that is gaining traction on the ground. But traction, or vote share, can mean little in a first-past-the-post system. In the absence of a loud, voluble anger against the incumbent government, or a wave, the AAP is having to generate momentum all of its own. There are well-attended rallies every day, and passionate speeches of free education and health care. But the task, particularly in a BJP bastion, will not be easy. In Katargam, for instance, the seat the AAP has given one of its two primary faces in the state, Gopal Italia, the BJP won 69.5% of the vote in 2017, and 53.41% in 2012.

A senior BJP leader in Surat said on condition of anonymity: “I will admit that we too are seeing the AAP rise. It is not the same all over Gujarat, but in Surat, the AAP is our main threat. They will gain vote share, that is for sure. But in the end, elections are won and lost by how many seats you win. If the BJP votes go nowhere, and the Opposition votes get divided, it is only good for the BJP. About them being a threat in the next election, five years is a long time in politics. But remember, even in 2021, when the AAP did well in the municipal elections, our vote share fell 2% , and we gained 10 seats. That is what may happen again, both in Surat, and maybe across Gujarat.”

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