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Why Surat is the ground zero of Gujarat election battle

Surat’s 12 urban seats are considered a window to Saurashtra’s 48. If challenger AAP makes its assembly debut, it will most likely be from here

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Delhi Chief Minister and AAP National Convener Arvind Kejriwal in Surat on November 22; (Photo: ANI)

By Jumana Shah: The centre of gravity of the Gujarat assembly election seems to have metaphorically moved to the 16 seats in Surat, and within that to the 12 urban constituencies. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is hopeful of making its assembly debut from Surat, just like it did in the Surat Municipal Corporation elections in February 2021, where it won 27 of the 120 seats to replace the Congress as the primary Opposition in the civic body. The grand old party drew a blank.

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Though much water has flowed in the Tapi river since then, political observers feel that if AAP wins any seat in Gujarat, it will possibly be in Surat. Three reasons why Surat has emerged as the ground zero of political contests in this election:

Window to Saurashtra

A primer on the state’s demography is essential to understand why Surat matters. About 40 per cent of Surat’s population is from Saurashtra—mainly workers who have been migrating here, since the late eighties, due to acute water shortage back home. They arrived to work in diamond factories as stone polishers and in textile looms as embroidery workers—both jobs that do not require higher education.

Today, the second generation of most of these families has settled well in Surat, contributing to its affluence and fast-paced growth. Politically, however, the 12 urban seats are keenly watched as these are considered a window to Saurashtra’s 48 seats. These families have maintained their connection with their villages and their personal success in the big city has nurtured an aspiration for their country cousins.

Patidars make up 35 per cent of Surat’s total electorate. OBCs (Other Backward Classes) constitute 30 per cent; Marathi and Marwari people 5-7 per cent each, Muslims 5 per cent and north Indians 3-4 per cent. Hence the urban Patels—the BJP’s traditional support base—make up the single-largest vote-bank on these seats.

AAP’s Patidar thrust

In 2015, the Patidar reservation agitation started by Hardik Patel, then all of 22 years old, had caught the imagination of the youth, particularly in Saurashtra and thus Surat. It is believed that along with numbers on the ground, a lot of the affluent Patel businessmen and traders were providing financial firepower to the young rebel’s organisation, the Patidar Anamat Aandolan Samiti (PAAS). Hardik campaigned extensively in Surat in the 2017 assembly polls, but the BJP doubled up in the urban seats and clinched all except Mandvi, which is outside the urban pocket.

One of the key convenors of AAP is young criminal lawyer Alpesh Katheriya. In 2019, Hardik quit PAAS when he joined the Congress and left Katheriya at the helm. Katheriya and AAP’s state convenor Gopal Italia were known to make a good team. Katheriya put PAAS’s might behind AAP, weaning away the Congress’s Patidar vote share in the Surat municipal polls in 2021.

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Katheriya quit PAAS this year and is contesting the assembly election from Varachha Road. Italia is the AAP candidate from Katargam. Another former PAAS activist and member of the Shree Khodaldham Temple Trust—an influential body of Leuva Patels—Dharmik Malaviya is contesting from Olpad. AAP candidates Manoj Sorathia (Karanj seat) and Raam Dhaduk (Kamrej) are also Patels.

All of these candidates are in their early to mid thirties, energetic and articulate. They are on their feet 18-20 hours a day, addressing as many as six small and big public rallies a day, besides doing road shows and visiting scores of households. Yogi Chowk in Varachha has emerged as a hotspot of AAP support. The traction these leaders are getting on their campaign trails may not be comparable to the outpouring at BJP rallies, but the seats in question are urban, putting the BJP on high alert.

BJP’s high stakes

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Veraval in Gir Somnath on November 20; (Photo: ANI)

The 16 seats in Surat have given Gujarat its home minister—Harsh Sanghavi, the candidate from Majura; minister of state for agriculture, energy and petrochemicals Mukesh Patel, who is being challenged by AAP’s Malaviya in Olpad; and former minister Purnesh Modi, who is contesting from Surat West. BJP state president C.R. Paatil is the Lok Sabha MP from neighbouring Navsari while Surat MP Darshana Jardosh was inducted into the Union cabinet as MoS railways in July last year.

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These BJP heavyweights have been tasked with retaining their urban turfs at any cost. A curious case is of the sudden withdrawal of AAP’s Surat East candidate Kanchan Jariwala, who withdrew his candidature just hours before the deadline. AAP leaders alleged Jariwala was “kidnapped by the BJP” and forced to withdraw his nomination. Similarly, social activist and businessman Mahesh Savani, who joined AAP last year, ran a few high-profile campaigns against the BJP government in the state and mobilised the business community to fund AAP, suddenly withdrew from politics this January, citing health reasons. What also has the BJP concerned is the influence of these affluent Kathiawadi businessmen on their kin back home in Saurashtra. Metaphorically, when Surat catches cold, Saurashtra sneezes.

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