The Congress is preparing itself for the Gujarat battle with extreme caution. It has decided not to allow Chief Minister Narendra Modi to play on his favourite turf or engage him in areas he would prefer to be engaged during the elections. By all indications, it has made up its mind of not making the December assembly elections a Modi vs Rahul Gandhi affair and not raising the issue of the 2002 communal riots during the campaign. Instead, it has decided to challenge his development claims directly, focussing on issues involving the people of the state.
So we won’t see ghosts of Godhra and post-Godhra riots stomping around the state during the run-up to the polls. After the maut ka saudagar -- remember Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s epithet for Modi? -- debacle in 2007, which left the state communally polarised and resulted in windfall gains for Modi, the Congress has decided to keep mum about the riots this time. It has realised rather late, that in the communally sensitive state it suits the chief minister if the Hindu-Muslim debate takes centre stage.
The change of tack was evident when it stayed remarkably subdued in its reaction to the Naroda Patiya riot case verdict. Maya Kodnani, a senior member of the BJP and former minister in Modi’s government, was convicted of serious charges such as conspiracy and murder by a local court. It has stayed studiously silent on Amit Shah, the former home minister of the state and a close associate of Modi, who has been chargesheeted by the CBI in the Shoaib Sohrabuddin and Tulsi Prajapati fake encounter cases.
The party is not keen on pitting Rahul Gandhi against Modi directly, since it will allow the latter to shift the focus of the debate to the performance of the UPA at the Centre and place it in comparison to his achievements in Gujarat. Also, such a move would place both the leaders on an equal footing, which from the Congress’ perspective is not appropriate at the moment. It could end up raising the question of Gujarati pride and create a wave in favour of the chief minister. Both are possible prime ministerial prospects in 2014 and the Congress would not like to make Gujarat elections a verdict on the prime ministerial choice of people.
Modi is likely to win hands down in such a scenario. The BJP would miss no opportunity to point out the electoral failure of the Congress general secretary across the country, his indecisiveness in taking any kind of responsibility and failure to articulate a position on any of the national issues. Till Rahul makes up his mind about his future course of action and becomes the clear leader, his party would like to shield him from any attack. A direct face-off with a strong Modi could leave his already floundering reputation shattered.
The Congress has decided to avoid distractions and stay focussed on Gujarat affairs. Modi’s aggressive industrialisation drive over the last ten years has created several pockets of discontentment in the state, though it has won many fans for him outside Gujarat too. There’s a growing impression that the chief minister has been ignoring farmers and the poor while rolling out the red carpet for industries. His biggest challenge comes from his own backyard, in the form of party MLA Dr Kanu Kalsaria from the Mahuva region.
Modi’s government has been insistent on turning the Mahuva area in Bhavnagar district into an industrial hub and consequently fell foul of local residents. The latest topic in the tug of war between the government and the villagers is the grant of 268 hectares of Samdhiyala reservoir and its catchment area to Nirma, to set up a cement plant that will produce two million tonnes of cement per year. The project has been denied environmental clearance by the Union ministry given the protests by local residents, but the tension between the state and its people is yet to subside. Talsaria, to the embarrassment of the BJP, is leading the people. The Congress feels it can exploit such situations to its advantage.
It would also like to highlight farmer suicides in the state, particularly in the Saurashtra region, in recent months due to crop failure. Eleven farmers have committed suicide across the state in the last month alone, most of them from the drought-hit Saurashtra region. The farmers' wing of RSS, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), believes it could be the tip of the iceberg. According to Maganbhai Patel, the chief of the outfit, 90 percent of farmers’ suicide cases go unreported.
The Congress, feels it has enough issues in Gujarat itself to take on Modi. Though its state-level leaders are a disappointment -- none matches the stature of Modi -- the party believes it can deliver a good contest.