Congress’ Gujarat battle is far from over

| | in Oped

Congress has devised a multi-pronged strategy to take on the BJP in Gujarat — it is using the caste card, religiosity, development and the social media. But is it still relying too much on Modi-bashing? Only time will tell

The Congress is enthused that it is fighting the Gujarat poll after losing power for more than two decades.  The party is going all out to woo the Gujarat electorate. “The difference this time is that the groundswell situation is a basic point in our favour,” a senior Congress leader claimed.

The grand old party is banking on anti-incumbency faced by the BJP, economic slowdown, dissatisfaction in the OBC, Patidar and Dalit communities, adverse impact of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax on small traders and middle class and the absence of a tall BJP leader at the local level. Also, the difference in vote shares of the two parties has been around 11 per cent in the last three elections but the BJP has won double the number of seats than the Congress.

The second advantage is the enthusiastic response to Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s campaign, which was more of personal interactions and roadside chats than addressing big rallies. Rahul Gandhi has particularly made an impression in the Saurashtra region, a BJP stronghold which sends 52 MLAs to the 182 members Gujarat Assembly.  The alliance with Patidar leader, Hardik Patel, too is a shrewd move.

Third, Gujarat is entirely a Rahul Gandhi show as Congress president Sonia Gandhi has taken a back seat. Also, the Congress scion has been spending most of his time in Gujarat ever since his successful return from the US in September this year and is closely monitoring poll campaigns. 

The Congress has devised a multi-pronged strategy to fight the Gujarat poll using the caste, religious, development and social media card.  It does not want to make it a Modi verus Rahul contest. The first is to adopt ‘winnability’ criteria for tickets. This has been declared often but never implemented. One has to see how many rebel candidates spring up after the final ticket distribution.

Second, the party has adopted a soft Hindutva line to counter the BJP’s charge that the Congress is anti-Hindu and has appeased the Muslims. Also, a section of leaders in the party believe that it should get rid of this anti-Hindu perception. The Congress had tried this line even during the Rajiv Gandhi era when he reversed the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case through Parliament and also opened the locks of the Babri Masjid gates, trying to appease both communities, but ultimately, alienated both. 

The party again tried in the 2002 Gujarat poll to neutralise the BJP’s strategy of cornering Hindu votes but again alienated both. Eyebrows are now being raised at the Gandhi scion visiting temples in Gujarat. After launching the Gujarat poll campaign from the Dwarkadhish temple in Dwarka in September, he had offered prayers at the famous Ambaji temple, he climbed 1,000 steps to seek the blessings of goddess Chamunda in Chotila and paid obeisance at the temples of Veer Meghmaya in Patan, Khodiyar Maa in Varana and Maa Bahuchar at Becharaji in Mehsana district. 

When the BJP criticised Rahul’s temple visits, he asserted,  “I am a devotee of lord Shiva. Let them say whatever they want to say. My truth is with me.”

Third, is the caste card. The Congress no longer has the social base which it had in the 1980s. The successful caste formula called Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim (KHAM), which it used in the 1980s had disappeared in the past two decades. This time, the party is trying to form a bloc comprising the Patidars, Dalits and OBCs.  Wooing of three young caste leaders, Hardik Patel (Patidar) Jingesh Mevani (Dalit) and the induction of Alpesh Thakore, a backward class leader into the Congress is a part of this effort.  However, it is not clear how much their influence can be translated into votes because the only thing common among these three leaders is their disenchantment with the BJP. 

Fourth, the Congress has smartly re-focused its campaign away from identity politics to keep the Muslims away from the electoral discourse. A Muslim Congress leader claimed, “We should not be active at this moment.  Ahmed Patel’s Rajya Sabha election has showed that whenever there is a Muslim candidate, the BJP tries to polarise.  Muslims know where to vote.”

Fifth, the party is focusing on the BJP’s area of maximum vulnerability. The Congress now wants to use the ‘economy stupid’ slogan. Rahul Gandhi recently said, “Narendra Modi fired two torpedoes at the Indian economy. The economy survived the first torpedo, but the second destroyed and sunk the economy. The first torpedo was note-ban, the second was the badly implemented GST.”

 Sixth, the party’s reworked communication strategy with more focus on social media has also played a role in the Congress’s growing visibility. Even the Congress is surprised at the media visibility of Rahul Gandhi in recent times. 

What is unfortunate is the negative campaign indulged by both sides.  The Congress should realise that Modi-bashing alone will not get votes. It needs to come up with a different narrative and an attractive programme.  The Gujarat poll is crucial for the Congress’ survival. It is equally crucial for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah as it is their home State.

Two recent opinion polls — Times Now-VMR and India Today- Axis My India — predict a comfortable margin of victory for the ruling party. Will Rahul Gandhi be able to swing the State in his favour or will the Modi magic continue?

(The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)

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