Chhotubhai's winning streak at stake in tribal heartland

Chhotubhai's winning streak at stake in tribal heartland

Illuminated skyline, shopping malls and eateries suddenly give way to pot-holed roads and desolate stretches where small thatched cabins serve Chinese food.

Vibrant Gujarat ends here. The only semblance of development is the signal on the mobile phone.

But the contrast again shows up as one reaches Maljipura, the home of a local satrap deep inside the tribal heartland, with a beeline of swanky SUVs and mansions.

"Here there is no Gujarat model of development," says Chhotu Vasava, six-time legislator and the man whose vote helped Ahmed Patel, senior Congress leader and political advisor to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, enter the Rajya Sabha.

"We want autonomy to tribal areas on the lines of the Northeastern states. We want to have our own budget and decide the fate of our land. We want Schedule and 6 of the Constitution to be implemented," says Chhotubhai, while seated next to his political boss Sharad Yadav, who describes him as a "man of few words".

In fact, Chhotubhai now wants to raise the pitch for a separate state of Bhilistan - carved out of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

"We have Bhilistan Tiger Sena and earlier we had Bhilkhand. This area has a population of almost 1.1 crore tribals and if you see the Statue of Unity or even Narmada Dam have been built on our land," says Chhotubhai, who is contesting the polls on the newly-formed outfit, Bharat Tribal Party (BTP).

"We are just beginning our journey from Gujarat and will spread across going forward."

Chhotubhai is considered to be the man who is above party politics. In the 1990s, he won under the Gujarat Adijati Vikas Party ticket, then as an Independent and next as a JD(U) candidate.

He recently moved out of the JD(U) with his benefactor Sharad Yadav, who is currently camping in the region after having lost his Rajya Sabha seat.

Chhotubhai even contested the zilla panchayat polls with the BJP for almost a decade.

However, this did not stop him from recently releasing a video on social media, alleging threat to his life from BJP president Amit Shah.

"Narendra Modi is killing notes, Amit Shah is killing men," he says in the video.

Chhotubhai's hold over the area can be gauged from the fact that when you ask for directions to his home nestled deep inside the jungle, a person 25 km away will assist you.

2017 won't be easy

The going may be tough for the strongman this time around.

"The BJP candidate Raujibhai Vasava was one of his closest aides. Raujibhai used to run Chhotubhai's empire. He was the link between Chhotubhai and his electorate. He could be his toughest challenger," says Mihirbhai, a local businessman and an old-time political observer.

"The other problem Chhotubhai faces is that his three generals – son Mahesh Vasava, aides Anil Bhagat and Pravin Vasava – are contesting Assembly polls from Dediapada, Ankleshwar and Waghodia. He is left to fight a lonely battle this time despite having struck a deal with the Congress in lieu of his support for Ahmed," Mihirbhai added.

Chhotubhai's troubles do not end here. For this election, he has also lost the  'arrow', a symbol synonymous with him. The Election Commission shot down his request for the JD(U)'s official symbol arrow as he was with the Sharad Yadav faction.

This may compound problems for Chhotubhai as he may find it difficult to send out a message to the entire electorate about his new election symbol - autorickshaw.

What has made matters difficult is that Nitish Kumar's JD(U) has fielded his namesake - Chhotubhai Vasava – as its official candidate under the arrow symbol.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be addressing a rally to seek votes for Raujibhai at Netrang on Wednesday.

Shah has sought Jhagadia as a "gift" from his party men in south Gujarat.

However, with 1.45 lakh tribals, 10,000 OBCs, 9,000 SCs, 29,000 Muslims and 40,000 general category voters forming the 2.31-lakh strong electorate in Jhagadia, the real Chhotubhai is confident of making it to the Assembly for the seventh time in a row.

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