Ahmed Patel’s ‘Jhoola’ is Still & Empty, Much Like Gujarat Congress. Will His Absence Swing Votes for BJP, AAP?


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A big ‘jhoola’ sits empty in a sprawling living room. It was Ahmed Patel’s favourite place to sit. The emptiness of the ‘jhoola’, now occasionally used by his daughter Mumtaz Patel, reflects the emptiness of the Congress in Bharuch which was represented by AP, as Patel was called for decades. It perhaps also reflects the stillness within the Congress in the state.

Outside, a handful of supporters and party workers look at Mumtaz Patel with hope, wishing that she can do for them what her father did for the party in the area and also carry a slice of Bharuch to Delhi where AP’s power within the Congress was unchallenged till he died due to Covid-19 complications two years ago.

“It’s not that I was not offered anything by the party. It’s just that I am still learning. I need to know the people. But yes, after my father’s death, lots has changed. Some things need to change and I am sure they will,” Mumtaz Patel told me.

MISSING AHMED PATEL

Plenty has changed. One, this is the first election the Congress is facing in the state minus Ahmed Patel. While the jury is still out on whether he could do much for his party in the state, where it has been out of power for over 20 years, even his critics accept that the challenges the party is facing now could perhaps have been countered or worked upon by AP.

Ahmed Patel could perhaps have convinced or tried to convince many like Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore not to join the BJP. Not just this, about 200 party leaders have left the Congress from Bharuch alone to join the BJP. This is a huge blow and also shows that Bharuch — which has been a BJP bastion — could have done with AP’s presence.

But the bigger challenge is outside Bharuch — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). News18 met up with some people at the Bharuch railway station where Hussain tells me: “We are looking for better roads, jobs. But now we are looking at a third alternative.”

Prodded further, he says: “BJP has had its Lok Sabha MP here for years. But we have got nothing. However, at the level of the Centre and the state, they have given us much. The Congress is a big disappointment. They have let us down. We don’t want to look at them now. Let us now look at AAP.”

Swaraj, who lives in Panchmahal, nods in agreement. “I don’t see the Congress leaders in my area anymore. I want to ask them why they have disappeared.”

LOSING THE 2017 ADVANTAGE

In 2017, Congress had put up a good show, ensuring that BJP wins with less than 100 seats. Riding on a high of Ahmed Patel having won a tough neck-to-neck Rajya Sabha poll, the Congress also banked on the Patidar agitation to confront the BJP. The trio of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani — along with Rahul Gandhi’s ‘bus yatra’ — had boosted the Congress, forcing the BJP to unleash Prime Minister Narendra Modi in several campaigns.

This time, the BJP is taking no chances and is concentrating on the tribal and rural areas to counter the AAP and Congress. With Hardik Patel by its side, it hopes to blunt the Patidar disillusionment.

INFIGHTING FORCES RAHUL GANDHI TO CAMPAIGN

In contrast, the Congress seems to be taking no shots at a win or a good performance. As always, there is a problem of plenty. No clear face has been worked upon. The state elders — Arun Mothwadia, Shaktisinh Gohil, and Bharat Singh Solanki — are at loggerheads. The campaign, therefore, has now become centre-heavy, with not many leaders having a base.

As a leader at the Congress office told me: “There are more press conferences and arrivals at the airport than campaigns.” The situation is so tense that few leaders demanded that the Gandhis step in to campaign to make the elections look a bit high-profile. However, Rahul Gandhi had to cut short his Gujarat campaign to a day and restrict himself to Rajkot and Surat.

It’s not that Ahmed Patel was considered a match to Modi or a strong grassroots leader beyond Bharuch and Ankleshwar. There were complaints against him of playing favourites. But in the end, with a resurgent AAP and aggressive BJP, perhaps the presence of AP would have added sharpness to a strategy which the Congress needs in the state.

Meanwhile, back in Piraman village where Ahmed Patel lived, Mumtaz sits gingerly on the ‘jhoola’ left empty by her father. She and her party are waiting for the air to clear. But it’s another state they fear could go the Punjab and Delhi way where Congress will eventually fade away. Unlike the memory of Ahmed Patel.

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