VADGAM: Men rush in and out of two small rooms in a double-storeyed hotel off the Palanpur-Mehsana highway. The floor is littered with campaign material -- festoons, banners, posters - all bearing Jignesh Mevani's bearded and smiling face, eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses.
The Dalit lawyer-activist, along with Patidar quota leader Hardik Patel and OBC leader Alpesh Thakore, has emerged as the face of resistance against the BJP, which has ruled Gujarat for the last 20 years.
Late last month, he announced he was standing for election as an independent candidate from the Vadgam constituency of north Gujarat's Sabarkatha district, prompting the Congress to swiftly withdraw its candidate from the seat, a traditional stronghold of the party.
The highway-side dhaba-cum-hotel is Mevani's election headquarters where an assortment of young activists from in and around Gujarat and from faraway Jawaharlal Nehru University brainstorm to make the 35-year-old's maiden foray into electoral politics a success.
With around 1 lakh Muslims and Dalit voters in the 2.5 lakh-strong constituency, Mevani, who emerged as a Dalit spearhead after organising movements against atrocities against the community in Una, was largely expected to sail through.
But with a combination of local issues, Mevani's prospects suddenly appear a little bleak, says a local Congress supporter.
Three factors have been working against him. For one, Mevani is being seen as an outsider, since he is from Mehsana and his movement was largely based out of Saurashtra. A rebel Congress candidate is also in the fray. And there is a possible consolidation of Hindu votes cutting across castes.
"Had the Congress fielded its own candidate, a victory was certain. But this time, there will be a contest," Abdul Haq, the supporter, says, reflecting the lack of enthusiasm among the Congress's foot soldiers in the area.
In Vadgam's Chhapi village, sarpanch Bharatbhai Patel, a Choudhary by caste, asserts, "The Congress's tactical mistake of not fielding a candidate will cost it the seat." He says Muslims, numbering around 70,000, may largely vote for Mevani, but votes of Dalits and other castes such as Thakores, Choudharys and Rajputs will get splintered between Mevani and rebel Congress candidate Ashvinbhai Parmar, son of a prominent local party leader.
"I decided to contest as an independent only after people and party functionaries pitched for my candidature. Even last time I was denied a ticket but did not rebel. I do not want the Congress to lose its traditional seat," Parmar said.
Congress sitting MLA Manibhai Vaghela had won the seat, reserved for SCs, by a margin of 21,000 votes in the last Assembly polls. It was under Congress's control in the previous two terms, too, the sarpanch said.
There are strong voices in favour of Mevani as well, especially among the youth.
"There will be no division of votes, at least not among Dalits and Muslims. Jignesh bhai has worked hard for these communities, braving the wrath of the State. People are flocking to his rallies in large numbers," 29-year-old Bhawesh Kumar, who runs a mobile repairing shop, says.
Mahesh Chauhan, a young Dalit, adds that what attracts him to Mevani is a practice that may push many others away. To be a part of his team, Chauhan has to contribute to Mevani's campaign funds.
"People used to being showered by money and liquor by the other parties during elections are not used to this, which explains the antipathy towards Jignesh bhai professed by many," Chauhan says.
But BJP supporters of the area, used to defeats due to the complex caste and religion matrix, are hopeful of a good performance this time.
"The Congress managed to hold on to the seat because of the large presence of Dalits and Muslims. But with the cracks in their camp, a BJP victory cannot be ruled out," a local grocery shop owner says.
Sarpanch Bharatbhai adds that the Congress did not base its entire campaign on Dalits and Muslims in earlier polls.
"But Jignesh bhai has alienated a large section of Hindus by investing all his energies on Dalits and Muslims. The others are not taking it lightly," he says.