Alcohol the brew as Cong-led Diu council turns BJP overnight?

It is a small Union Territory off the Gujarat coast that is known for its liberal liquor policy and tourism industry. On May 7, seven of the nine Congress councillors of Diu Municipal Council (DMC) — which is one of the oldest urban civic bodies in Asia, having been set up by the Portuguese in 1613 — defected to the BJP. This put the saffron party in the majority just a month before DMC elections are set to be held and ended the Congress’s 15-year rule in the civic body.

The defections came in the backdrop of the suspension of DMC president and Congress leader Hitesh Solanki last December and UT administrator Praful Patel allegedly cracking the whip on “illegal hotels” in the town. Of the seven who walked over to the BJP camp, at least three have stakes in the tourism industry. The three are Hitesh Solanki’s cousin Ravindra Solanki who owns two liquor shops; Bhagyavanti Solanki, who owns an alcohol shop (the councillor has been bed-ridden since contracting Covid-19 in April 2021); and Haresh Kapadiya who built a hotel about four years ago but has been struggling to receive permits to open the premises to guests. Councillor Nikita Shah’s husband Devang, who used to work as a clerk in the Diu Collector’s office, runs two meat shops.

For Hitesh Solanki, who had been the DMC president since 2011, trouble started when Patel was appointed the UT administrator in 2016. The political crisis intensified on December 7 when the UT administration led by Patel suspended Hitesh, citing a disproportionate assets case registered against him by the Central Bureau of Investigation in 2016. The suspension was preceded by the UT administration razing his hotel, weeks earlier, for being in an industrial zone. Before the demolition of the hotel, the UT administration also removed a garden and four servants’ quarters built by Diu’s leading hotelier Yatin Fugro for allegedly violating land laws.

Despite enjoying an overwhelming majority in the civic body, the Congress didn’t push for an election to elect a new president. Since Hitesh Solanki’s suspension, the DMC’s chief officer has been carrying out routine work of the civic body. In the absence of a political executive, the UT’s director of municipal administration and the local Collector are in charge of local urban bodies.

“The BJP has been squeezing the generous liquor policy in Diu. Two of the seven councillors who defected own liquor shops. A third one is getting a hotel constructed. Another has a family member serving as a clerk in the UT administration. All of them felt the heat,” said a Congress insider.

Said a hotelier, “Since Praful Patel was appointed as administrator of Daman and Diu in 2016, the UT administration has been enforcing the liquor policy more vigorously. This is the reason why some people have faced action. Some bootleggers are finding the going tough and, naturally, a few liquor shops have shut down.”

The recent defections mean only Hitesh and his elder brother Rakesh alias Jitendra are the only Congressmen left in the civic body. Party insiders said the former DMC president, who once worked in the Merchant Navy, played a major role in hardening political lines in DMC. “He is like the Vitthal Radadiya (a former Patidar strongman) of Gujarat. He is a one-man army and one-man show for whom party affiliation doesn’t matter. He never used photos of the Congress’s national leaders during election campaigning and relied on his popularity. However, he erred in not allowing others to rise through the ranks,” a Congress functionary added.

“In fact, Hitesh Solanki himself wanted to join the BJP at one point in time. But the two parties could not agree on terms and conditions,” claimed a source.

For the former DMC president, there is only one person responsible for the crisis. Accusing Patel of muzzling people’s voice, Hitesh alleged, “He has been pressuring people to switch sides and pushing the agenda of the BJP. The Congress leader also claimed that the administrator’s office was not providing him with a date to hear his plea challenging the suspension.

The UT administrator, who was Gujarat’s minister of state for home when Narendra Modi was the chief minister, refused to comment on the allegation and said, “I am holding a Constitutional post and such questions should be directed to the BJP.”

Unlike a few other UTs, Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli do not have an Assembly. Diu used to send an MLA to the Goa Assembly when Diu, Daman, and Goa had a combined legislature (it existed till 1983). At present, the residents of Diu vote for a Lok Sabha seat as well as for the DMC. People in rural areas vote for four village panchayats and eight seats of the Diu district panchayat.

BJP’s gains

The BJP blames Hitesh Solanki for the desertions. “The Congress had the numbers in the general board of the DMC and they should have demanded election to the post of president. But they never did that,” said the party’s Diu general secretary Bhavyesh Chauhan. “This was because Hitesh Solanki did not want anyone else to become the DMC president. After his suspension, he is spending more time in Gujarat than in Diu. The net result was that the Congress councillors had no leadership to guide them. Nor were they able to rule the DMC on their own. In such a scenario, they thought it better to join the BJP.”

Chauhan pointed out that the post of DMC vice-president too had been lying vacant. “Mansukh Patel, then vice-president of DMC died in November last year. But the Congress never bothered to hold an election to elect Patel’s successor,” he added.

The saffron party expects the defections to aid it in the DMC general elections next month. It is already in power in the Diu district panchayat, with six of the eight seats in its control. Sources claimed that more Congress leaders were set to join the BJP in the coming days. Asked if defections en masse by councillors bode well for democracy, Chauhan said, “The DMC is going to the polls within a month. So, the defections will have little impact in the short term.”

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