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BJP hunts for political balm to Jat headache in north Gujarat | OPINION


By Rahul Shrivastava: Driving out of Charada village in Mansa Taluka in Gandhinagar, the striking similarities between the run-up to assembly elections in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh (early this year) can’t be ignored.

Like western UP, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in north Gujarat — that votes in phase II — is trying to find a political antidote to ‘Jat anger’.

In UP, the Jats shifted to the BJP in 2014 and voted as a monolith in 2017 and 2019. By 2021, they were angry, apparently over the three farm bills. But their unrest and political realignment was also for regaining their ‘chaudhrahat’ or dominance in their one-time region of influence. They form 2% of UP’s population but in 25 assembly seats, they tilt the outcome and in 50 others, they are multipliers.

In 2022 poll, the BJP managed to somewhat tame the tide but a split jat vote meant loss of several west UP seats for the saffron party.

In distant Gujarat, a large section of ‘Chaudharys’ or Jats have been up in arms for some months. They are furious over the arrest of an ‘Anjana Chaudhary’ leader. With just 1.6 million members, Anjana Chaudhary, who are said to have migrated to Gujarat from Rajasthan and further north, aren’t large in numbers. But they wield economic, social and thus, political pelf.

For more than 75 days, these Chaudharys of north Gujarat have been holding ‘maha sammelans’ (grand conclaves), ‘jail bharo’, ‘sandesh yatras’, candle light marches and ‘samuhik pradarshans’ to mark their protest against the arrest of caste comrade and former state minister Vipul Chaudhary.

Vipul was arrested on charges of alleged irregularities worth Rs 800 crore in Dudhsagar Dairy during his tenure as the chairman over one-a-half decade ago. What made outsiders sit up and take note was that he was arrested despite being a member of the ruling BJP in Gujarat.

With the Gujarat government showing no signs of relenting on the cases against Vipul, the rising unrest by Anjana Chaudharys threatens to derail the BJP’s plans in Mehsana, Sabarkantha and Banaskantha regions in north Gujarat where the Chaudharys influence 32 of the 53 seats.

In 2017, of these 32 seats across six districts, the BJP won 14. Most of these were in the urban areas. The Congress had won 18 with leaders like Jignesh Mevani emerging as a political force.

The BJP’s sigh of relief after Mevani’s former comrade Alpesh Thakor joining it and contesting on the BJP ticket this time has been cut short by the Jat anger.

The protest by Chaudharys is on when BJP’s famous Gujarat model is creaking, nine years after PM Narendra Modi left Gujarat. Poor governance and high corruption are issues which Modi is trying to remedy with his persona and with Amit Shah’s winning strategy. The BJP can’t escape the negative sentiment over issues like price rise and unemployment as the “double engine ki sarkar” is a reminder that BJP rules both the Centre and the State.

North of Gandhinagar’s well-maintained highways and milestones of development, the government’s under performance and simmering unrest are giving the BJP’s poll planners little hope of achieving what the bosses expect them to – improved margin of victory compared to 2017.

THE TUMULT

North Gujarat is the region of cooperatives, white revolution and success stories emulated across the country. But this time here, milk is on the boil and it’s just one of the many headaches for BJP in this assembly election as the party attempts to retain Modi’s political pocket borough almost nine years after he left the state for Delhi.

On November 15 to mark the 103rd birth anniversary of Mansinh Chaudhary, Vipul’s father and the founder of influential Dudhsagar Dairy, two lakh Anjana Chaudhary community members in a show of solidarity gathered at Charada village in Gandhinagar. They took a pledge to struggle for the release of their leader.

They had come from 1,253 villages of Choudharys who are largely into farming and milk production. Over the last two months, they have been finding unique ways to protest – even through charity, by donating food to poor and giving grants to students from the economically weaker sections. The community members have been peacefully serving a constant reminder – hinging their vote to the release of Vipul.

At the heart of the release Vipul Choudhary campaign is an outfit with a militant title – Arbuda Sena. The Sena is named after ‘Arbuda Devi’, the most revered deity among the Choudharys of the region.

Sena was founded by Vipul about a year ago as a social platform with political intent. He opened Arbuda Sena offices in different districts, started organising public meetings, motorcycle rallies and conclaves. By August this year, he was issuing demands from the Arbuda Sena platform, asking the Bhupendra Patel government to deliver on demands of not just Choudharys, but even OBCs. Now his Choudhary comrades are crying foul claiming openly that Vipul’s expansion plans could be one of the key triggers behind his arrest.

Chaudhary had entered the Gujarat assembly as MLA in 1995 on a BJP ticket from the Mansa seat in the Gandhinagar district. He became a minister in the Keshubhai government. In 1996, he sided with Shanker Sinh Vaghela during a rebellion against the Chief Minister. Vaghela, backed by the Congress, became CM and inducted him in his council of ministers in charge of the home portfolio.

Vipul returned to fight an election from the Bhiloda Assembly seat on a BJP ticket in 2007. The seat is located in the Sabarkantha area. He lost the election to Anil Joshiyara of the Congress despite support of the Choudharys in the region.

He has been trying to catch the eye of Modi-Shah duo for a ticket from Visnagar constituency. The Arbuda Sena was his attempt to display his pelf and winnability. The BJP and other entrenched Choudhary leaders in the party didn’t miss the political import. The Arbuda Sena had the potential of becoming a unifier which could be used as a political pressure tool.

Over the last few decades, the BJP has been totally averse to letting any group or individual amassing strength. At the height of the Patidar agitation in 2016, the party dropped Anandi Ben, a Patel leader, and brought in a Jain, Vijay Rupani.

The trio of Hardik Patel, a Patidar, Jignesh Mewani, a Dalit, and Alpesh Thakore, an OBC, gave the BJP a run for its money in 2017. Now, Patel and Alpesh are in the BJP.

But the Arbuda Sena has now become a rallying force for the Choudharys in the Mehnsana and adjoining areas where Vipul’s Dudhasagar Dairy has huge influence.

Over the last one month all over in 1,253 villages, from Gandhinagar to Palanpur, the Arbuda Sena has been taking out ‘Arubuda Ekta Yatras’ using specially designed raths (chariots).

These 1,200 odd villages, including Charada where the ancestral home of Vipul is situated, are dominated by Choudharys. The Arbuda raths leading the yatra are daily trailed by dozens of tractors and bikes driven by members of the Choudhary community.

Interestingly, the participants while demanding the release of Vipul are consistent in stating that the final decision who they vote for will be taken by their leader in jail. “If he says vote against the BJP, we will. We voted for the BJP in the last few elections because Vipul bhai was and is still with the BJP,” said Pradeep Choudhary, an Arbuda Sena worker.

A couple of days before the ‘Sneh Milan’ organised by the Arbuda Sena, during India’s Today team’s visit to Charada village, was completely charged up. The team drove past the Dudhvarsha Dairy, set up by Vipul’s father, to meet up with village women who were holding a protest prayer meet in the local Ramji Temple as part of a daily routine. They soon walked out and gathered at Vipul Choudhary’s ancestral home.

From there, they took out a march around the village asking men to pitch in for their leader’s release. The village was rallying around the Choudhary clan member who had moved to a palatial home in Gandhinagar long ago and is said to have houses in distant countries.

Pradeep Choudhary, a relative of Vipul, was sitting outside the house. He said, “Vipul’s father had started the first dairy in the region in 1960 and milk used to come from only handful of societies. Everyone in the region and Gujarat’s milk revolution owes it to Mansinh Patel.”

Inside the home of Mahendra, another relative of Vipul said, “Our community runs the milk business. It provides employment to lakhs directly and indirectly. It contributes to the economy of the region and the state.”

B K Charada, a BJP worker in Mehsana area, said, “Choudharys are like dollars. There are only 17,000 Choudharys in the Mansa area. But parties field Choudharys as each member of the community influences 15-20 voters. Since the first assembly election, the BJP was losing the seat. In 1995, Vipul bhai turned this into a BJP seat. And from then on, Choudharys in North Gujarat started supporting the BJP.”

Most people in Charada village had surrendered their BJP membership right after the arrest and are waiting for a command from the jailed leader on who they should vote for in the election.

Tempers were running high in Dadhiyal village near Visnagar, a 25-km drive from Charada village. Here the first member we met was Ramesh Choudhary sitting on his tractor. He was returning from a strategy meeting in Mehsana. He said, “We are into dairy and agriculture. Our leader has been arrested. We have always lived peacefully and contributed to the milk movement.”

Ramesh said, “We are simple people. We have been staunch BJP supporters. Elections are approaching. We have a simple demand: Release Vipul bhai. We have put up three hoardings saying till that happens we will not allow any BJP leader in our village to campaign.

Barely a few metres away, a commotion announced the arrival of a procession of village women. They had gone to the neighbouring village to raise support for their campaign among non-Choudhary members.

Shanta Ben, the leader, said, “Our lives depend on Vipul bhai’s dairy. There is a connect. We send 15-20 litre of milk daily to Dudhsagar Dairy. How can we abandon him!” Another woman Sharmila Ben said, “We appeal to the PM to release Vipul bhai and drop the fake charges against him.”

Next morning in Mehsana, we found that to sustain their campaign, the Choudharys have set up an Arbuda Sena head office in a newly constructed shopping complex.

We met Mogji Choudhary, who is leading the Sena in the absence of Vipul, outside the new office. He said, “The Choudharys are enraged. The charges against Vipul bhai are false and politically motivated. His attempts to unite the Choudharys under one umbrella unnerved the BJP government. The BJP felt that he has more support than the chief minister.”

Nandu Choudhry, a big real estate player in the Mehasana region and now an Arbuda Sena mobiliser, said, “The government has brought us to the streets. We were all with the BJP but quit the party the night Vipul bhai was arrested.”

THE TRIGGER

The Dudhasagar Dairy has a daily connect with the livelihood of thousands of households in Mehsana area, one of the three milk hubs in Gujarat.

That’s the first layer of influence for Vipul Chaudhary. Mehsana Milk Union was registered on November 8, 1960. It was founded by his father Mansingh Chaudhary as one of the first dairies. That was the time when Varghese Kurrian of Amul fame was trying to set up dairies in Gujarat. Mansingh and others helped him by pioneering the cooperative movement.

In 1960, Dudhasagar Dairy was set up with a fund of Rs 5,232 . Daily procurement of milk on an average was 3,300 litres from 11 village milk co-operative societies. It started supplying milk to Ahmedabad Municipal Dairy. By 2011, Dudhasagar Dairy was procuring 8 lakh litres of milk per day from Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

In 2012, as CM of Gujarat, Narendra Modi inaugurated one of its plant in Mehsana. Amul’s high fat ‘Amul Diamond’ milk, Packaged Amul Buttermilk, Amul Tazza milk, Amul Rabri, Amul Masala / Jira flavoured buttermilk originated from the Dudhsagar Dairy

Today, the Dudhsagar Dairy is linked to 1,300 odd societies and it created a record of sorts by procuring 40.25 lakh litre on January 12, 2018. It has plants in Rajasthan and Haryana, besides Gujarat. Its annual turnover is said to be around ₹6,000 crore.

While pursuing his engineering degree, Vipul was handpicked by Shankar Sinh Vaghela, who was recruiting fresh blood for the BJP.

Riding on the popularity of his father, Vipul had became an MLA at 29 on a BJP ticket by defeating Congress heavyweight Ishwar Singh Chawda and earning the sobriquet of giant killer.

But then he left the BJP under the influence of former Chief Minister Shankar Singh Vaghela. He made a comeback in 2007, but things had changed and he was viewed with suspicion.

Rajan Choudhry, a senior Arbuda Sena activist, said, “I wouldn’t name anyone but there are a couple of leaders within the BJP who feel threatened by Vipul.”

Just before the start of the poll race, this time the BJP had four big leaders in the north, one of whom was Vipul. Others were former deputy chief minister Nitin Patel from Mehsana, health minister Rushikesh Patel from Visnagar and former minister Shankar Chaudhary, who is also the chairman of Banas Dairy.

The direct beneficiary of Vipul’s arrest, as per the political grapevine, is said to be Shankar.

DAMAGE CONTROL

On October 10, to underline that the BJP was unfazed by the Arbuda Sena and Choudharys protest, PM Modi addressed a rally in Mehsana. He mentioned that the district’s Dudhsagar Dairy, headed by BJP leader Ashok Chaudhary, has reaped the maximum benefits in the current year. In a direct reference to Vipul Chaudhary, the PM congratulated the people of Mehsana for “giving the reins of Dudhsagar Dairy to people who stopped money from being siphoned off”.

Sources say backroom channels are working in the region between the BJP and the Choudharys. Vipul has not issued any statement against the BJP.

On November 15, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal was tipped to attend the Charada Sneh Milan organised by the Arbuda Sena. Earlier, AAP had said that Kejriwal would address the rally. But Kejriwal did not turn up. That abruptly ended speculations that Vipul may join AAP and issue a call for Choudharys to support the party.

There are indications that the Arbuda Sena leader retracted on going with AAP. Mogji Choudhary of Arbuda Sena said, “We are a non-political organisation. Our elder has not given us any direction on joining or supporting anyone.”

Meanwhile, the BJP is strongly pushing Modi’s slogan, “Aa Gujarat Main Banavyu Che” (I have made this Gujarat) to ensure that local leadership rivalries don’t upset the party’s equation in the region.

But behind the scenes, the party is trying to consolidate the Choudhary vote in other areas beyond Mehsana, the epicenter of pro-Vipul Choudhary protest.

BJP’s COUNTER

The Arbuda Sena protests by a section of angry Choudharys was a setback to the BJP. But the party was preparing to keep Vipul in check and take on the ensuing challenge. As part of the damage control exercise, a multi-pronged strategy was unleashed.

The party started providing prominence to other Jat leaders like Shankar Choudhary. Intra-caste fault lines were identified.

Our team visited the Solaiya village in Mansa area. The village, dominated by Choudharys, had hosted a brainstorming session under the aegis of the Vishwa Anajana Mahasammelan way back in September this year at the BBC Adarsh Vidyalay in Solaiya.

The event had coincided with the first large pro-Vipul Choudhary protest by the Arbuda Sena. The purpose of the sammelan was to unite the Choudharys.

Raman Choudhary, who had settled in Canada a few decades ago but is now working to bring the Choudharys together, claimed, “We want to take our samaj to the global level. Unity means political strength and then economic prosperity. The idea behind the programmes which are continuing after the sammelan is to achieve what Patidars have. Their ‘kodaldham’ has a big say in every sphere.”

Pithu Choudhary of Solaiya said, “Choudharys need to unite.”

The Anjana sammelan or conclave had the backing of top leaders of the community. But the plan to consolidate the Choudhary vote is based on the knowledge that there is serious rivalry between top Choudhary leaders and the dairies they control. So, Dudhsagar dairy man Vipul Choudhary’s team is on the war path – the Banaskantha dairy team led by Shankar Choudhary is being backed as a counter.

Among those who attended the Anjana sammelan in September was Andabhai Patel, a member of board of directors of the influential Banaskantha Dairy or Milk Cooperative Federation. Andabhai was there as an emissary of Shankar Choudhry, the head of the dairy and also a top BJP leader of north Gujarat.

Rivalry between Shankar Choudhary and Vipul Choudhary is old. While Vipul won the 1995 election on a BJP ticket and turned the protege of rebel Shankar Sinh Vagehla, Shankar Choudhary contested his first election against CM Vaghela in 1997 from Radhanpur seat. While Vipul’s political graph declined despite his return to the BJP, Shankar rose to be junior minister for Health and Family Welfare, Road and Transport and Urban Housing Departments in 2014.

Commenting on the Arbuda Sena protests and possible division of votes, Andabhai Patel said, “No caste group can vote uni-directionally. Votes get split but what we want is that the Arbuda Sena should not turn political.”

Since September, the pro-BJP faction of Choudharys has been organising meetings to counter those held by the Arbuda Sena.

The BJP is trying to work out a strategy to create a bouquet of caste groups to emerge as winner in several North Gujarat constituencies where the Choudharys are keeping it on the edge. What is challenging the BJP’s run for yet another term is the diversity of social composition of the region, with sizable Dalits, Muslims, tribals and OBC communities who have not been traditionally amenable to BJP or its politics.



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