The crowd at Narendra Modi's rally on Sunday was a fraction of what Sonia Gandhi attracted at Jamanpada in neighbouring Navsari district a day before.
But Modi still managed to up the ante by launching an angry and persuasive attack on the Congress saying the party was misleading tribals with false information about land distribution, as well as misrepresenting the development work done by the BJP. The Congress was also hurting the sentiments of the tribal community by denying the existence of Ram, he added for good measure.
A galaxy of top BJP leaders, including LK Advani and Rajnath Singh, addressed rallies across more than 90 constituencies on Sunday, all of which go to the polls in the second phase on December 16. But Modi's response to Sonia Gandhi's diatribe against the BJP on Saturday was easily the most spirited.
The chief minister was addressing a rally at the district headquarters in the heart of the tribal belt of southern Gujarat, some 80 km from the spot where Sonia had spoken. About 92 per cent of the district comprises tribals, most of whom are farmers.
In this first of the series of rallies he addressed, Modi repeatedly referred to Sonia’s speech.
“If Soniaben has courage, she should not mislead. She should quote authentic statistics,” an aggressive Modi told his audience, refuting Sonia’s allegation that the Gujarat government had not distributed land to the tribals.
In the course of his 20-minute speech, Modi named “Soniaben” at least a dozen times, and every time elicited loud applause.
Modi claimed that more than 50,000 hectares of land have been distributed. He said that not a single Congress-ruled state has done as much. “Hang me, but I will continue to fight for the tribals,” he said.
“If someone can lie in the name of Ram, why would he or she hesitate to do so about Modi,” the chief minister then said, moving to the Ram Setu controversy.
He conducted an impromptu quiz on details of the Ramayana with his audience, asking questions and getting a chorus of loud answers.
“You know everything about Ramayana but Congress party does not know anything.”
The chief minister also spoke about promoting the aspirations of the tribal youth by sending 40 of them to the US and Canada to pursue higher studies.
“In Congress’s 50-year-rule, not a single tribal youth from Gujarat could become an engineer, doctor or pilot,” he said.
Modi made no reference to the controversy that has dogged the Dangs district for years. His government has been accused of lending overt support to organisations engaged in forcibly reconverting Christian tribals to Hinduism. Christian organisations, too, have been charged with converting the largely animistic tribals.
But Modi bypassed the matter altogether.
(with inputs from Shekhar Iyer, New Delhi)