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Maverick rival Oza makes Modi sweat in Maninagar

Though the Gujarat CM will in all probability win, his Congress opponent is queering the pitch.

india Updated: Dec 08, 2002 00:41 IST
Pradeep Mallik (Indo-Asian News Service)
Pradeep Mallik (Indo-Asian News Service)

Voters inManinagar, the"safest" constituency his party has awarded Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, concede that he will in all probability win, but his maverick Congress opponent is certainly queering the pitch for him.

People in the Maninagar constituency of eastern Ahmedabad say that while the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) Modi seems set to re-enter the assembly as their new representative, Yatin Oza is doing a good job of making him sweat all the way to the house.

BJP sources concede Maninagar was the "safest" bet for Modi, who has become the latest pin-up boy of Hindu supremacists. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP's ideological guide, has its Gujarat head office in the area and it was from here that Modi spread the hardline Hindu group's message for more than a decade and a half.

Maninagar has been electing a BJP legislator for the last three elections and about 340,000 of its 370,000 voters are Hindus.

"Modi could have filed his nomination and sent his representative on December 15 to collect the paper declaring him the winner. But things changed when Yatin Oza filed his nomination," said Pragya Trivedi, a workingwoman in Maninagar.

"Modi might be the chief minister, but what did he do for his previous constituency (Rajkot-2)? Oza is known to have nursed his earlier constituency (Sabarmati). I, for one, would vote for someone who has a track record rather than for someone who only holds out promises," Trivedi added.

Fearing a backlash from the economically and politically influential Patel community, Modi decided to leave Rajkot-2 in the Saurashtra region from where he was elected in February this year.

The Patel community that dominates the Saurashtra region is sore that Modi upstaged their leader Keshubhai Patel, the former chief minister.

BJP's Kamlesh Patel who had won from Maninagar last time readily agreed to vacate the seat for Modi, but some of his supporters are disappointed.

"(Kamlesh) Patel had been doing well for the constituency and the party. Modi is our leader and we hope he will serve the constituency. But what stopped him from contesting from somewhere from his home district of Mehsana? Why make Kamlesh Patel sacrifice his seat?" asked a supporter.

Though the previous representative's supporters said they were working sincerely for Modi, Oza and the Congress are trying to fuel this latent anger.

And Oza is doing what he does best: talking to people at their doorstep. "This is the quality that made him popular in our constituency (Sabarmati). He came to our housing society on a couple of occasions when he was the legislator from here and he was in his office at least five days a week to listen to our problems," said Piyush Desai, an engineer.

Oza, 43 and a lawyer by training, graduated from campus politics to the electoral arena in 1995 and felled then deputy chief minister Narhari Amin in Sabarmati. He defeated Amin again in the 1998 mid-term poll, but resigned his seat and from the BJP in 2001 after feuding with then chief minister Keshubhai Patel.

Direct touch with his electorate did the trick for Oza in the past, and he is employing the same strategy this time around too.

"I am moving door-to-door and telling people about the misdeeds of BJP and how it is misleading them. I am telling them that I left BJP precisely for these reasons," Oza told IANS.

"I am telling people that they (the BJP) are practising 'pseudo-Hindutva' and are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Hindus, sometimes in the name of the temple (the party wants built in Ayodhya), sometimes for failing to check terrorists. They are using these bodies as ladder to political power."

It is a bitter and almost a personal contest. To Oza, it is a continuation of his battle with Modi at Rajkot-2 in the February by-election. He is alleged to have taken the Congress battle against Modi to a personal level then. As the by-election approached, leaflets casting aspersions on Modi's personal life made their appearance, allegedly at Oza's initiative.

"I don't hit anyone below the belt," Oza said, denying he was behind those leaflets. "Yes, I am definitely telling people 'he ditched his voters in Rajkot. What is the guarantee he would not ditch you'?"

Congress workers are busy relaying this message. "It is paying dividends. People do see reason in our argument," said Kapil Mittal, a young Congress worker.

While Oza is putting up a brave fight, the fact remains that Modi is hugely popular in Maninagar. His posters and banners are selling like hot cakes at the Ahmedabad party office.

"Yes, he (Modi) is popular and likely to win with a huge margin," conceded a Modi detractor within BJP. "But it will be a moral victory for Oza if he is able to bring down Modi's margin by a few votes."

First Published: Dec 07, 2002 13:20 IST