A lone security guard keeps watch on what remains of the Jhulto Bridge here in Morbi. The ominously named bridge went down on October 31, smashing and drowning 135 people in the rocky Machchhu River below.
A 10-minute drive from this spot takes one to the election office of Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Kantilal Amrutiya. Adorning the shamiyana set up at the office are large flexes and posters depicting his political journey, beginning with a 1979 photo of him helping in rescue and relief operations after the Machchhu dam burst, killing thousands.
The next flex has a picture of Amrutiya with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when the latter visited Morbi during a two-month pravas.
“See these pictures. I have been a sevak of the Sangh since childhood. Everyone knows me here as I am always amidst them. It is they who are fighting the elections, not me,” says Amrutiya, popularly known as Kanhabhai.
Amrutiya was denied a ticket from Morbi in the 2020 bypoll after Congress leader Brijesh Merja, who had defeated the former in the 2017 elections, jumped ship to the BJP. The saffron party fielded Merja in the bypoll and won, marking a return of the Morbi seat to its kitty.
The BJP had been winning the seat for 27 years but lost it in 2017 as a fallout of Hardik Patel’s Patidar andolan. At least this is what all three candidates from BJP, Congress and AAP believe.
Forty-three years since the 1979 tragedy, Amrutiya once again jumped into the Machchhu river when the Jhulto Bridge collapsed on October 31. Wearing a life-saving tube, Amrutiya asked fishermen to bring in their nets and tried to save as many people as possible. The images of his daring rescue attempt went viral. Many in the BJP feel that while Amrutiya is an influential leader in these pockets, it is this act that ensured him a ticket for the upcoming Gujarat elections.
Asked if the Morbi bridge collapse is an election issue this time, Amrutiya ducks the question, saying the government is doing all it can to help the survivors.
The Congress, meanwhile, is going all out to ensure that Morbi remains on the top of election discourse. Amrutiya’s Morbi rival and Congress candidate Jayanti Jerajbhai Patel says his party will end “27 years of mis-governance by the BJP”.
“The party has ruined the state. The deaths in Morbi bridge crash are definitely an issue. The state is in deep shock due to the loss of so many lives. We are doing our campaign without bursting crackers, without dhol nagadas. We are keeping it simple,” says Patel.
The AAP office down the road from the BJP’s doesn’t seem to be too busy even though the candidate was inside. Surrounded by six people, Pankajbhai Ransarya says his top priority are roads and education.
“Morbi, too, is definitely an issue here… Roads are broken and it has been 27 years but the BJP has not been able to develop proper schools in the area. There is inflation. AAP is doing politics of development like improving education and health sectors and would like to implement it in Gujarat,” he says.
The Supreme Court had asked the Gujarat High Court to monitor the probe and fix accountability and Amrutiya is confident it will be a smooth process. “Achhi tarah se karega,” he says.
It’s not that the tragedy is a non-issue but many do not see it as an electoral one in Morbi. The BJP and AAP are focusing on development of roads and water for irrigation, while the Congress is hoping it is successful in making the bridge collapse an election issue.
Amrutiya, who has represented Morbi for five terms, says improving roads is his first priority. “We have four access roads to enter Morbi. We need to improve these roads and work on bringing water to the area,” he says.
Amrutiya adds that the controversy over AAP leader Satyendra Jain’s ‘massage video’ in Delhi’s Tihar Jail is a non-issue in Morbi as well. “I don’t talk about the opposition, I speak only about myself and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s work,” says the BJP candidate. “Morbi people trust me and AAP ko main ladai me ginta hi nahi (I do not consider AAP to be my competition).”
AAP’s Ransarya, however, claims the BJP is trying to rake up the issue nationally for political mileage. “The BJP has created the issue. But it will not be an issue here.”
Amrutiya has claimed that he would be sweeping the polls for the sixth time. “The Congress candidate has lost six times against me. He has no luck in politics. The Congress has no candidate to field so they fielded Jayantibhai Patel again,” says Amrutiya.
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