Narendra Modiís rival revels in new role

Shweta bhatt
As she travels through Maninagar in Ahmedabad, Shweta Bhatt attracts a lot of interest, with some people waving at her and others declaring, "We have seen her," or, "This woman has fought fearlessly for her husband."

The response delights the homemaker who had never thought she would one day be campaigning in a direct contest against Narendra Modi. "Kahan se kahan aa gayi hoon. Socha hi nahin tha," says Shweta, 48, wondering at this sudden turn of fate.

The government has suspended Shweta's husband, Sanjiv Bhatt, the IPS officer who told the Supreme Court that he was witness to a 2002 meeting in which Modi allegedly asked bureaucrats and police officials to allow Hindus to vent their anger against Muslims. Travelling in an open Gypsy, donning a Congress scarf, Shweta finds herself campaigning against the man her husband testified against.

"People are coming to support me," she says. "They want a change and I am here to bring that change, freedom and true democracy." Modi had won the seat by 80,000 votes in the last election.

"Have to yuddh aej kalyan" (Now, war is the only welfare), goes Shweta's campaign slogan. Her supporters chant, "Maninagar ki sherni aayi," describing her as a lioness.

From time to time, she is surrounded by groups of women, Dalits, the poor, traders and even policemen who randomly join her, Shweta greets every person she comes across in Khokhra, Isanpur and Maninagar, which make up her constituency.

She tries to address every person differently, which she believes will prove her strength. Isanpur has Muslims, Dalits and various sections of the poor. Maninagar has a Brahmin majority followed by Patels, Baniyas and Thakars. Brahmins are a target constituency with their 60,000 votes. So are the elderly, and women.

An elderly man offers her a garland. "Will you bring about a policy for real uplift of Hindus, Muslims and Christians living in neglect?" "Yes, I will," she says, "but you will have to break the policy of silence you have been following. Speak up on December 17."

In Khokhra, an area with a mixed population including Christians (14 per cent of the electorate) and people of South Indian and Maharashtra origin, she is welcomed with a message, "At least you tried to know we too stay here." Seven churches have brought out a memorandum urging Christians to vote for her.

Maninagar is where Shweta was born and raised. She studied political science and pursued a Bachelors of Legislative Law course, but was never actively connected with politics and law, though she does discuss law and policing with her husband. When Sanjiv Bhatt was arrested in a fake affidavit case in connection with the 2002 riots, she campaigned for his release.

She says her political science background means she understands politics well. In her view, Modi's development politics blindfolds the country to his ill-doings, and doesn't fit in Gujarat or in his own constituency, which is marred with serious civic problems.

For voters, Modi is more the CM than the local MLA. When they see him in the neighbourhood, they say, it is to inaugurate something or address a function. Many say they never see him as an MLA who would address their local problems.

Shweta's daughter, who is pursuing an MBBS degree, and son, who is doing economics, accompany her on her campaigns. She also uses verses from a Gujarati poem she has written, which when translated read, "I have value but no power/You have power but where are your values?/ You are just you but "I" means all of us/... Now, war is the only welfare."

Maninagar, Ahmedabad

2.27 lakhvoters

(1.18 lakh men, 1.09 lakh women)

Sitting MLA

Narendra Modi

Contestants

Narendra Modi (BJP), Shweta Bhatt (Congress)

Q&A

Shweta Bhatt

Congress, Maninagar

How do you expect to perform?

I expect a majority of the votes.

How would you rate your strengths against your rival's?

Narendra Modi is a master conjurer who had so far succeeded in misleading the people of this state with various tricks and charades. The people of Gujarat have started seeing the face behind the image. I have no experience of politics. My strengths are simplicity, truth, courage and empathy that people have seen during my struggle.

Those 17 days (when I fought for my arrested husband's relaese) made me realise my potential to stand up to injustice and oppression. I was overwhelmed by the tremendous support and solidarity... I draw my strength from the support of the common people.

Do local issues matter in this constituency?

Maninagar is not one monolithic entity. There is a "Money-nagar" within Maninagar that is replete with civic amenities, but on the other hand there are large areas that do not have even the basic amenities such as drinking water or even sewerage facilities. Even the condition of roads in the other Maninagar has to be seen to be believed.

The opposition says you are fighting a personal battle, not a people's battle.

I have no personal issues or agenda, nor am I using my husband's battle with the CM as my campaign strategy. This is a battle to reclaim democratic space in Gujarat...space that is shrinking very fast... My husband, Sanjiv Bhatt is more than capable of taking his crusade to its logical conclusion. He does not need me to fight his battles.

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