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Why ‘Samaritan’ Kantilal Amrutiya is BJP’s best bet at redemption in a Morbi reeling from loss

BJP's Amrutiya retained Morbi from 1995 to 2017 when he lost to Congress candidate. Kin of bridge collapse victims say they are wary of trusting either party until justice is done.

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Morbi, Gujarat: Memories from last month’s tragedy, when the collapse of a century-old suspension bridge on Machhu river claimed 135 lives in the industrial city of Morbi, are still fresh in the minds of locals.

The ‘Jhulto Poolcollapsed on 30 October, allegedly as a result of shoddy renovation and overcrowding. At least 135 people lost their lives in the mishap, and as many as 200 people were later rescued during a five-day operation by the Indian Coast Guard, Navy, National Disaster Response Force, local administration and other agencies.

While Morbi is slowly returning to normalcy, one can sense palpable anger among the families of the deceased. With the Gujarat assembly elections around the corner, the notion that negligence on the part of authorities led to the tragedy does not augur well for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has held Morbi for 27 years, except in 2017 when it lost the seat to the Congress only to win it back in the 2020 assembly bypolls.

Morbi will vote in the first phase of the elections on 1 December. 

It was in this backdrop that the BJP decided to field its former five-term MLA Kantilal Amrutiya in Morbi. Videos of him wading into the Machhu river to rescue survivors after the bridge collapse had made headlines.

Amrutiya told ThePrint that there was nothing heroic about his decision to jump into the river to rescue people. “It’s my nature to help people,” he added. 

File photo of rescue operations at site of Morbi bridge collapse | Soniya Agrawal | ThePrint
File photo of rescue operations at site of Morbi bridge collapse | Soniya Agrawal | ThePrint

A BJP leader in Morbi, meanwhile, said that it was a strategic decision to field Amrutiya, who enjoys a lot of goodwill among locals. “It’s not just him jumping into the Machhu river to save those who fell from the bridge. He has always been at the forefront to help people in need. Be it the Machhu dam burst in 1976 or the 2001 earthquake, Kanhabhai (Amrutiya) has always been the first to reach out and help,” he said.

BJP workers, wishing to remain anonymous, claimed Amrutiya handed out free medicines during the pandemic and set up a medical camp with 3,000 beds at 13 locations across the city. He even opened up the garden at his residence for locals looking for a venue to get married, they said.

This reputation is perhaps why Amrutiya, or ‘Kanhalal’ as he is popularly known, is being projected as the gentle, ‘servant of the people’ face of the BJP here. 

Though Amrutiya had won Morbi for the BJP five times since 1995, he lost to Congress’s Brijesh Merja in 2017 in the aftermath of the Patidar quota agitation that rocked the state in the run-up to the assembly polls. Merja defected to the BJP in June 2020, necessitating a bypoll from the Morbi seat later that year, which he won again but on a BJP ticket this time.

Merja, BJP sources said, was the front-runner to get the ticket from Morbi. But the bridge collapse and subsequent reports of how shoddy work undertaken by the contractor — Oreva Group — led to the incident, necessitated a rethink. “It was felt that under the prevailing circumstances, Kanhabhai was our best bet,” sources added.  

Amrutiya has been pitted against Congress’s Jayantilal Jerajbhai Patel who unsuccessfully contested the 2020 bypoll against Merja. This is Patel’s seventh election, but he is yet to taste victory from the Morbi seat.


Also Read: Gave jobs to women, built infra — why Oreva was revered in Gujarat’s Morbi, until tragedy struck


‘Wary of trusting anyone till we get justice’

While the three main political parties in the fray in Morbi – BJP, Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — are going all out to woo voters, families of those who lost their loved ones in the bridge collapse say they are wary of trusting anyone till they get justice. 

Jamillaben Shah of Sipai Vas, who survived the bridge collapse but lost seven members of her family to the mishap, told ThePrint: “None of the candidates have come here to speak with us. How can we expect them to come when the Prime Minister himself was doing rallies when our loved ones were struggling for their lives?”

Claiming that they will not step out to vote this year, the remaining members of her family say that they have no hope of getting justice. 

In conversation with Jamillaben Shah | Soniya Agrawal | ThePrint
In conversation with Jamillaben Shah | Soniya Agrawal | ThePrint

Shabana Pathan (38), another resident of Morbi’s Sipai Vas, said she had no complaints with the government, but wanted owners of the Oreva Group — who are still absconding — to be brought to task. Pathan added that she was still struggling to believe candidates of either party. “The Congress workers came here and told us to reach out to them in case we needed any help. But we still feel wary of trusting anyone till justice is delivered.”

Asked about aid to affected families, a Morbi district administration  official who did not wish to be named said the Gujarat government and city administration did their best to aid affected families financially. “The central government has given financial aid of Rs 2 lakh and the state government Rs 4 lakh to next of kin of each of the deceased. For 20 children, who have lost either of their parents, a deposit of Rs 25 lakh per child has been made into their bank accounts by the Adani Group,” he said.

The official added, “Seven children who were orphaned will be provided a sum of Rs 3,000 per month. The royal family of Morbi has also pledged an amount of over Rs 1 crore to be given to families of the victims.”

While BJP is banking on Amrutiya’s popularity among locals, the Congress and AAP have made the government’s inaction over the Morbi bridge collapse one of their main poll planks. 

Congress’s Morbi candidate Jayantilal Patel told ThePrint: “There is anger among people over the government’s inaction. It is rather unfortunate that the BJP is glorifying the candidate’s rescue and relief work. Even the Congress helped people, but we did not make any videos.”

BJP going all out to tide over backlash

The BJP is going all out to ensure that reverberations of the 30 October mishap do not dent the party’s poll prospects. To that effect, Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan, along with several central and state BJP ministers were seen canvassing for Amrutiya in Morbi.

The party has even set up a massive pandal (tent) in the heart of the city, where BJP workers helping in the campaign and community leaders are being fed everyday. The tent, plastered with pictures of Amrutiya helping locals, can be seen brimming with locals being served refreshments every few minutes.

Pandal set up by BJP in Morbi | Soniya Agrawal | ThePrint
Pandal set up by BJP in Morbi | Soniya Agrawal | ThePrint

Asked about how he lost the Morbi seat in 2017, Amrutiya said: “There were several agitations afoot trying to dismantle the BJP at the time. However, times have changed and we are confident about our victory.”

That Amrutiya is a popular figure in this industrial city is evident from the way locals talk about him.

Ranjit Singh (70), who runs a small paan shop near Morbi’s Shakti Chowk, said Amrutiya is “a kind man who responds every time one reaches out to him”. “He will wave back to big shop owners and small shop owners with equal gratitude when he is walking by. I like that about him.” 

Maulik Pandit, who owns an electronics store in the area, said that he thinks the bridge collapse might affect the poll outcome in Morbi. “The BJP did well to field Kanhabhai. He enjoys tremendous goodwill. Although the BJP government has done well for the people of the state, this year, some people are upset and might consider other options,” he told ThePrint.

Besides his ability to garner votes, Amrutiya’s reputation as a ‘Samaritan’ is another reason the BJP is relying on him again this election.

“He is a simple man who just wants to serve the people. Even now, during his Lok Sampark (public) meetings, he is interacting with people from nearby villages who are not even a part of his constituency. So far, he has walked at least 200 kilometres in the city to meet and connect with his voters,” claimed one BJP worker who did not wish to be named.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)


Also Read: Modi rules Gujarat because there’s a vacuum. Even cultural celebrities can’t fill it


 

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