Ahmedabad: As Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi bids for an unprecedented third term in office in Gujarat, the thought of his own electoral future seems to hardly cross his mind. And that's not without a reason. After all, Modi is locked in an unequal fight with a political novice, the wife of a suspended IPS officer who took on the BJP strongman over the most sore point in his career - post-Godhra communal riots - in the Maninagar assembly constituency.
Congress nominee Shweta Bhatt, the Kathak dancer spouse of Sanjiv Bhatt, once said to be close to Modi but fell out with him in the aftermath of the riots of 2002, is challenging Modi in his pocket borough. Sanjiv Bhatt is fighting a legal battle against the formidable Chief Minister and he has now brought it to the electoral arena by proxy.
Though there are 12 candidates in the fray, for all practical purposes, the contest is between Modi and Congress' Bhatt, after former Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, a powerful leader of politically strong Patel community, decided to withdraw his nominee for the seat which is part of the rapidly expanding Ahmedabad city.
A Modi baiter, Keshubhai floated his own outfit Gujarat Parivartan Party, along with another former Chief Minister Suresh Mehta and ex-Union Minister Kashiram Rana a couple of months ago to undercut his successor who largely contributed to his marginalisation in state politics. Rana has since died, giving a jolt to the fledgling party.
Even Muslims in the constituency with an electorate of 2.25 lakh readily concede it is "a no contest" between Modi, a hardboiled politician, and Shweta Bhatt. "In Maninagar, it is going to be a cake-walk for Modi. Nobody can defeat him," says Mohammed Mohsin Ansari, a tailor.
Sporting a flowing beard like a devout Muslim, Ansari, who had education till grade seven in a regular school and not in a Madarsa, says a section of the minority community may vote for Modi after he tempered his hardline Hindutva posture during his much-publicised Sadbhavna Mission. He, however, feels that scars of 2002 carnage remain and appeared to blame Modi for that."Three months of continuous mayhem and massacre cannot happen without state patronage," he says.
His view of even a minuscule section of Muslim voters backing Modi is, however, not shared by Salim Bhai, a milk and poultry vendor. "Sadbhavna Mission has made no difference to Muslims who will vote for the Congress candidate. May be, the Muslims will not vote with the vigour they used to as the Congress candidate is weak," says Salim Bhai.
His friend AM Malik points to Shah-e-Alam neighbourhood in Dani Limda constituency across the road to say development, even in Ahmedabad city, has not been free from bias under Modi. "You go and see Shah-e-Alam area populated by Muslims, see the filth and penury there. Development in Gujarat is limited to a few and certainly Muslims are not among them," he says.
Pradeep Jani, a marketing executive, however, terms Gujarat's development with Modi at helm over the last decade as "unparalleled in history". "Modi has made Gujarat famous through sheer hardwork and his vision for development," he says, adding the Keshubhai factor would play no role in Maninagar where a number of public facilities like gymnasiums and swimming pools have been built and renovated by the state government.
Jani feels though the electoral outcome in Maninagar, the constituency, where Modi won twice by impressive margins - 75,333 votes in 2002 and 87,161 votes in 2007 - would largely remain the same this time too. Congress, according to him, could have fared a little better had it fielded an experienced candidate. He, however hastened to add that the BJP stalwart had trounced Dinsha Patel, currently a Union Minister, in the last poll.
Naresh Parmar, a caterer, says, "Modi must be rewarded for the good work he has done. He should become even the Prime Minister if merit is a criteria for becoming one." "There are no communal riots, crime has come down and Modi has improved facilities in towns and cities as also villages," he says. So confident seems Modi about a landslide win in the constituency that he has not cared to pay a visit even once after filing his nomination.
Baldev Desai, a former Congress corporator in Maninagar, who coordinates Shweta Bhatt's election campaign, however, is confident of her victory largely because he believes that Brahmins, a caste to which she belongs, would overwhelmingly vote for her. With nearly 60,000 votes, Brahmins are the largest voting bloc in the constituency and have traditionally backed BJP.
Close watchers of the poll, however, feel Brahmins would, by and large, vote for Modi this time too. Desai said Christians, accounting for 14 per cent of the electorate, a section of Patels and OBC too would vote for Bhatt. Desai, however, concedes that Patels from Vadnagar, Modi's hometown, who have a sizeable presence in the constituency, would entirely vote for the Chief Minister.
Bhatt hopes to give her much experienced rival a run for his money. "Jeet Jayenge (will win)," she replied promptly when asked about her prospects in the poll. "You see, nobody is happy....there is an atmosphere of fear bordering on terror. Till two days ago, I was denied permission to hold meetings, to take out rallies, police objected to even parking of my campaign vehicles," she said while leading a gaggle of women on her campaign trail.
Asked if she was fighting a proxy war on behalf of her husband, Bhatt said, "What I am doing is my choice. Sanjeev is fighting Modi separately in the court and my win or loss is hardly going to change things." "Development in Maninagar is discriminatory. While in some areas (localities comprising BJP voters), development is visible but in others it is totally absent. People live cheek by jowl along open drains and heaps of garbage nobody cares to remove," she says.
Asked to comment on the public perception that she is a weak candidate against Modi, the Kathak dancer-turned-politician quipped confidently "Wait and see. I will make Mr Modi dance around my finger."