Gujarat elections: Can Congress breach urban BJP stronghold of 'diamond city' Surat?
Gujarat's diamond city and the epicenter of the Patidar quota movement, is set for a tough Assembly poll battle as the Congress has added the face of the Patidar agitation Hardik Patel to its arsenal this time.
Amid issues like implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and demonetisation, apart from the 'Patidar' factor, it is to be seen for whom the large trading community of this diamond and textile hub will vote, when the city goes to polls in the first phase on Saturday.
Though Ahmedabad is the largest city of Gujarat, Surat is a favoured destination of political heavyweights in this poll season.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited the city twice last month to understand the plight of those who were "hit by GST and note ban".
During his visit, Gandhi also addressed a huge rally in the city's Patidar strongholds - Varachha and Katargam.
On December 3, quota agitation leader Hardik Patel led a mega road show in Varachha. Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani led the BJP's road show in Majura area the same day.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month addressed a rally at Kadodara, located on the city's outskirts.
The Congress is hoping to snatch some seats from the BJP this time by capitalising on the 'anger' factor of Patidars and the traders.
On the other side, the BJP is confident of retaining its bastion, as its leaders claim the "ground reality" is different from what the Congress is projecting.
Out of the total 12 constituencies in Surat city, nearly half of the seats - Varachha Road, Kamrej, Katargam, Karanj, Olpad and Udhna - have a concentrated population of Patidars, who mostly migrated here from Saurashtra.
The remaining six seats are - Surat-East, Surat-North, Surat-West, Choryasi, Limbayat and Majura.
To some extent, Surat-North and Majura seats also have a significant population of Patidars, who are into various businesses, including diamond cutting, polishing, trading and in different trades associated with textiles.
The city has been a bastion of the BJP since long. But, the political scenario in this bustling business hub seems to have changed after Hardik Patel started the agitation to get reservation for his community two years back.
At that time, Surat witnessed large scale violence and arson, mostly in Varachha and adjoining areas.
Out of the two sedition cases lodged against Hardik, one was registered in Surat. Since then, the Hardik-led agitating body, Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), is up in arms against the ruling BJP and has vowed to defeat it.
Notably, BJP president Amit Shah had to cut short his speech at a function in Varachha area in September when some PAAS agitators created chaos by shouting slogans and throwing chairs.
Now, in an apparent bid to thwart the anti-incumbency factor following the Patidar 'anger', the BJP has dropped six of its sitting MLAs - from Kamrej, Surat-East, Surat-North, Karanj, Udhna and Katargam seats.
These leaders include sitting MLA of Katargam, Nanu Vanani, who is a minister in the Rupani government.
Out of the nearly 1.98 lakh voters of Varachha Road seat, the Patidars are in the driving seat with their number being over 1.5 lakh.
In Kamrej, where the total electorate is about 4.28 lakh, the Patidars alone account for over two lakh.
In Katargam, having around 2.77 voters, the Patidars are in a dominating position with over 1.18 lakh electorate.
Besides the 'angry' Patidars and traders, there are various other factors which could breach the hull of BJP's ship in this coastal city.
Since a large population, mostly Patels, of this city belongs to Saurashtra region, the agrarian crisis back home could also add fuel into their "anger" here, Surat city Congress president Hasmukh Desai said.
"Many decades back, Patels and other communities from Saurashtra region started settling here. Since they still own agricultural land back home, they are holding the BJP government responsible for their dwindling farm income. It is possible that their anger could reflect in the voting here," Desai said.
Apart from Patidars, the Congress is also banking on small traders and entrepreneurs whose businesses were claimed to have been hit by demonetisation and the implementation of GST by the BJP-led government at the Centre.
In July, the textile traders of Surat city called a massive strike against the GST.
The Congress was quick to take up the issue and party vice president Rahul Gandhi held two back-to-back visits last month.
"On one side we are getting full support from the Patidars, while on the other the trading community and the shopkeepers, who are spread across the city, are seeing a ray of hope in Congress after Gandhi's visit. All the factors are in our favour," Desai claimed.
However, the BJP discarded the argument, claiming that the ground reality is totally different.
"Though traders were unhappy initially, they now understand the benefits of GST. This so-called anger will never convert into votes. If the people were still against us, then why so many had turned up for the chief minister's rally?" BJP's sitting MLA from Majura, Harsh Sanghvi, asked.
Meanwhile, the PAAS members have already hit the streets in the Patidar-dominated areas to convince people not to vote for the BJP.
According to PAAS convener for Surat, Dharmik Malavia, they have set a target of defeating the BJP on at least five seats - Varachha Road, Karanj, Kamrej, Olpad and Surat-North.
"When we tell people do not vote for the BJP, it implies that vote for Congress if you want to uproot the party which committed atrocities on us," Malavia said.
"The people are in our support and the BJP candidates are finding it difficult to even enter into the Patidar societies for canvassing," he claimed.
The 182-member Gujarat Assembly will go to the polls in two phases on December 9 and 14 and the counting of votes will be taken up on December 18.