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Surprised? Communist candidate in Ahmedabad bypoll in a Hindutva bastion

By Rajiv Shah
On October 11, 2019 morning, as I was scanning through daily news online (I don’t read papers now), I found that both BJP and Congress candidates from Ahmedabad’s Amraiwadi assembly constituency, which fell vacant following the victory of its BJP MLA in the Lok Sabha polls, have been asked to explain as to why they had cash in hand for election campaign, and why they did not deposit their money in a bank account. Fighting the bypoll, BJP’s Jagdish Patel and Congress’ Dharmendra Patel had declared they possessed Rs 1.81 lakh and Rs 1.70 lakh as cash in hand, respectively, for election expenditure.
The Election Commission notice reportedly said it is mandated for candidates to first deposit their expenditure funds in a bank account and then spend from their bank account money for various purposes. Interesting, but who cares for Election Commission, which has no teeth now, I thought. As it was Amraiwadi, what interested me more was (surprise of surprises), CPI had put up a candidate in the bypoll, Natvarbhai Desai. I had thought the Left, particularly CPI, doesn’t exist, and is dead, but here it was: It had put up a candidate to fight an assembly by-election, that too in Gujarat, a bastion of Hindutva.
My interest in the CPI candidature, about whom young minority rights activist Hofeza Ujjaini told me rather pressingly (“you must write about him”, he insisted), arose also because I was peripherally associated with the CPI during my youth, till I was posted as Patriot’s Moscow correspondent in 1986. A Communist Party card holder, my love for Communist ideals was to wither away soon. Yet, during those good, old, young and enthusiastic days, when I was still doing my post-graduation from Delhi University, I took an active part campaigning for two CPI candidates – one in Delhi and another in Ahmedabad (where I would annually land up during summer holidays).
I never met any of the two candidates, they were too big for me. But I do remember Prem Sagar Gupta, then CPI secretary, Delhi, telling party cadres, that Guruji, as he was called, had a committed votebank of 75,000 votes in the Parliamentary constituency of Delhi, and if there was a division in the voting pattern between Congress and other parties, he might even win! I remember: I looked at him with skepticism, smiled, but as a committed cadre decided to campaign with a group of other young CPI card holders.
Hofeza Ujjaini
I don’t remember Guruji’s name, but during my house-to-house campaign, I found he was known to everyone. We were on a “parchee distribution” spree to the voters (each parchee had details on where their voting booth was), and all agreed, he was a “nice, honest social worker”, but when we would ask them to vote for him, what we would get was a broad smile. On the voting day, I stood outside a voting booth, seeking to gather the overall mood of the voters. 
The voting ended, and our “group leader” Parmod Kumar – perhaps he was in Dayal Singh College then – told me with great emphasis: Guruji would win. I replied, to the utter dismay of our group leader, “Even if he gets 5,000 votes, he should be happy.” The results came in, and he just got 5,000 plus votes! A somewhat similar atmosphere prevailed in Ahmedabad: During my visit with a group of CPI activists to the chawls of Ahmedabad, men and women alike praised the candidate, saying he had fought for them as a union leader. However, he, like Guruji, badly lost his deposit.
On hearing that Desai was a CPI candidate, I picked up phone, rang up one of my ex-comrades in Ahmedabad, Himmat Shah, who is in his late 60s (he even today addresses me as “comrade”), to let me know who this Desai was. “I don’t know”, he told me frankly. On obtaining Desai’s mobile number, I decided to phone him up. Desai promptly picked up the phone and told me he had joined the party only four years ago. In his early 50s, he also told me that he has been working on Dalit rights, adding, there is “a lot of discontentment” among people, which was “sure to get converted into votes”. He added, “I have extensively worked with Dalits and minorities, on Right to Education and Right to Information, and for people’s rights. I am sure to win.”
What an enthusiasm, I thought. Living in a slum area, surely, he must have been a down to earth social worker. He has been working not just for Dalits, including Valmikis, but also for 2002 Gujarat riot victims. Ujjaini told me about a few other of Desai’s preoccupations. One of these particularly fascinated me -- he was associated with street plays inspired by Safdar Hashmi, a close comrade-in-arm during my college days, and a powerful theatre activist who was murdered in 1989 when he was on a performance spree of the street play "Halla Bol" or CPM at Ghaziabad.
Further, I was told, whether it was atrocities on Dalits at Una or Thangarh, or the displacement of thousands of slumdwellers living along the Sabarmati river, Desai “stood by them.” All this was fine, I thought. But would his vote even cross the four digits on the voting day, October 21, I wondered, given the huge popularity which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has acquired over after the Kashmir event, and an equally inactive Congress? The Congress candidate, who was previously a pro-reservation Patidar movement activist has just been going around criticizing Modi for failing to keep promise of depositing Rs 15 lakh” in each poor person’s bank account, which is now a non-issue.
Desai, on the other hand, promises to work for making employment a basic right, Rs 10,000 to each jobless youth, Rs 25,000 as minimum monthly wage, proper execution of the anti-manual scavenging Act and the Right to Education Act, and fighting against the “social evils” like tobacco, liquor and other forms of intoxication. All of it is, surely, people oriented. Among those who are supporting him, I am told, include trade unionist Ashim Roy, once a close associate of George Fernandes, senior advocate Shamshad Pathan, apart from national council CPI leaders and local CPM activists.
Kanhaiya Kumar, JIgnesh Mevani
So far so good; surely, there is lot of discontentment, and one can “feel it while travelling in Ahmedabad municipal corporation buses”, to quote someone very close to me, though this person also adds, “I wonder why all this is not getting converted into vote.” During the last Parliamentary elections, Kanhaiya Kumar, the only CPI candidate about whom there was a lot of hope, was defeated at the hands of hardline BJP candidate Giriraj Singh by a margin of more than four lakh votes! Five years earlier, top social activist Medha Patkar, who has been working for Mumbai slumdwellers, too, fighting from a Mumbai constituency, just got about 60,000 votes, not enough to save deposits.
So what would be Desai’s fate? My only hope is, Kanhaiya Kumar, the most popular face of CPI as of today (perhaps more popular than the CPI), and Jignesh Mevani, a popular Left-wing Dalit face and a Congress-backed MLA, come over to support Desai, so that he could gather some more votes than what he might otherwise get. Meanwhile, I can only wish him all the best! 

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