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Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat: Anti-BJP mood may help Congress, but party must not give in to nepotism

When Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, otherwise known for his mild-mannered demeanour, goes ballistic calling an equally temperate Rahul Gandhi a gangu teli and a chamachidiyo (a drowsy bat) in response to the latter's 72-hour campaign in the state that concluded on Friday, it sure is a sign of panic.

And there is a reason for Rupani’s irritation.

Rahul’s three-day visit has pumped in a much-needed adrenaline into the Congress rank and file while leaving a large populace curious, many of whom already appeared to be in a mood for change. Curiosity because Gandhi presented himself in a different light to the people who are continuously fed pappu jokes on WhatsApp. Not that he really endeared himself to them like Narendra Modi once did, but there should not be any misjudgment on this.

Besides, the fact that the impromptu crowds which gathered at places where Gandhi was to come, made no bones of their disillusionment with BJP, shows that the simplicity of the Congress vice-president's visit may have flown in the face of the ruling party's overkill of promises bordering on fatigue and nausea.

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi meets supporters during his visit to Dwarka in Gujarat. PTI

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi meets supporters during his visit to Dwarka in Gujarat. PTI

“Narmada nu paani? Kyan chhey paani? Paak sukaai jay pachhi malshe paani? Moti-moti vaitu karey chhe, maltu kashu nathi (Where is Narmada water? Will we get it after the crop dries up? He makes big promises, we don’t get anything),” says Rajesh Tapubhai Patel.

He was talking with this writer at the roadside of Saraaya village in Jamnagar district when other villagers started gathering.

A cynical Nathalal Patel chipped in, “I warned them repeatedly. Don’t go into the slush (he was referring to lotus), but they just won’t listen and are now complaining.”

Nanjibhai Patel retorted, “Ha baarabar chhey, relo atyare aavey tou shu karu? (Ok, ok, so what? What do I do if the realisation strikes now).” At this point, others started giggling.

“We are fed up of all the hollow talks. We never got electricity supply for eight hours as they claim,” he continued.

Nobody in the crowd was waiting for any questions. They just went on. “The government has promised to buy our groundnut crop at Rs 900 MSP for 20 kg after Labh Pancham (the fifth day after Diwali), which is a joke. The input cost goes to around Rs 800 or more, this MSP has no meaning,” says Ashokbhai Narsinhbhai.

Suddenly, Rajesh Patel, another bystander joked aloud and everyone laughed. "We will need to bear two sons now and depute one to Narendra Modi to run all the errands related to paperwork. Get a stamp there, get a document signed here, get it verified and attested. So, the duty of this extra son will be this," he said, loosely referring to GST.

"We all went and gave loads and loads of votes. We reposed a lot of faith. But if you give anything in excess, they vomit it on us only," Babubhai Jivabhai shrugged.

They were unstoppable.

In a backdrop like this, Gandhi came only as a whiff of fresh air and not so much as a charismatic leader.

Can Saurashtra bring Congress' revival?

But for the people in Saurashtra, the sheer fact of a national leader mingling with the crowd and chatting with them about their real problems is as good as solving their issues. Somebody merely listening to them and not lecturing them through organised posed-for public meetings makes them happy, particularly in an anti-incumbency atmosphere.

Gandhi’s schedule was smartly thought of to ensure that he made more personal interactions than holding large public meetings since there is little in his oratory to make an impact. "It was better that he went to the people and chatted with them, rather than them being pooled in and mobilised. Even in places where we had public meetings, they were kept small in size,” says a Congress worker, who was at the forefront of organising the logistics and worked closely with Gandhi’s team. He does not wish to be identified.

From Dwarkadheesh temple in the historical town of Dwarka to the popular hilltop Chamunda Mata Temple in Chotila, where Gandhi climbed nearly 900 steep steps in 47 minutes when locals waiting on the foothill debated if he would be able to make it, to the popular deity of the agitating Patidars at Khodaldham Temple in Kagvad near Rajkot, visits to popular temples of local deities was an integral part of Gandhi's itinerary.

It's important to note that Saurashtra, a region in Gujarat, plays a very important role in state politics, just like the state of Uttar Pradesh does in national politics. It sends the maximum number of MLAs, 52, to the 182-member Gujarat Assembly and is equally caste-driven, feudal and economically backward.

The region, however, is the strongest bastion of BJP. The Congress had managed only 15 seats out of 48 in the 2012 assembly elections, while BJP got 30. Two seats were won by former BJP chief minister Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party, which later merged with the ruling party.

Perhaps, this is why Rupani blurted out those words, which otherwise are not in sync with his persona. Gandhi’s visit seems to have rattled the BJP that has been running Gujarat for the past 22 years with a virtual power of attorney of an unquestioning populace.

What accentuates the fact is that the chief minister belongs to Rajkot, the nerve centre of the Saurashtra region and he has won from there. The more Gandhi travelled, the more Rupani and the party’s spokespersons kept on repeating that Congress loses wherever the Congress vice-president campaigns.

BJP president Amit Shah was parallelly in Gujarat but he was not campaigning, he was looking inwards holding frantic strategy meetings and taking stock of the preparedness of party workers. He is learned to have severely pulled up the chiefs of various cells and morchas as well as office-bearers of the party for not doing enough. Shah even asked them to compare the preparations ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when the party won 26 out of the 26 seats in Gujarat, and now. He was scheduled to leave for Delhi on Saturday morning.

It is a double whammy for BJP in Gujarat, which is feeling the absence of Narendra Modi as chief minister and is banking completely on his leadership, whose own actions and claims are now being questioned.

There is little to show of the Rupani Government — few, including Gandhi even mention him beyond that it is a remote-controlled dispensation — and the party’s future hinges completely on the charisma of Modi. And it is very much there, though it may have jaded. The state leaders are confident that Modi would be there at the peak of the campaign like in Uttar Pradesh to turn the tide with his magic wand that works the best in Gujarat.

Gandhi vs Modi

For now, Gandhi is taking the Modi Government head-on and not so much the Gujarat dispensation — though he is campaigning for a state election — in the same way as BJP is harping on the achievements of the central government.

During his speeches, Gandhi focussed on issues that hurt the BJP govt the most such as demonetisation, GST, unemployment, farmer distress, the issue of Patidars in Gujarat and price rise.

Tearing into the govt's hurriedness to implement GST, Gandhi said, “Ek din Narendra Modi-ji ko 500-1000 ka note achha nahi laga, bus bandh kar diya. Hanste-hanste rad kar diya, bus kar diya rad, ha, ha, ha, (One day, Narendra Modi didn’t like the look of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes, so he just scrapped them and was laughing),” Rahul taunted, as people went into peals of laughter.

Waise hi, itni jaldi kya thi GST ki. Humne kaha dhirey se laaiye, lekin nahi, kisi ki sunte nahi wo (In the same way, what was the hurry to implement GST. We asked to go slow and give time but no, they won’t listen),” Gandhi said, adding that Congress never envisaged GST in this format with several slabs and a high rate of 28 percent. "The common man and the small businesses have been hit hard by this,” he said.

When Gandhi asked the people what has happened to development in Gujarat, there was a collective response from many, “Vikas gaando thai gayo chhe (development has gone bonkers)", a phrase which has become popular on social media, and has brought huge embarrassment to BJP in Gujarat. Gandhi said it was a result of "Narendra Modi’s habit of taking people for a ride".

"He said, he will generate two crore jobs, he will get all black money and people will have Rs 15 lakh each in their account, promised farmers to get remunerative prices, to name a few. Nothing of this has materialised,” Gandhi added.

Gandhi also taunted Narendra Modi's Make In India slogan, stating that it will be a shame that the Sardar Patel’s statue will be "brought with the emblem Made in China on it".

Gandhi also made promises of his own though, stating that the Congress government in Gujarat will waive farmers' dues in 10 days. “The government in Gujarat is run on a remote control. It won’t happen if Congress comes to power. The government will be run in consultation with the farmers, the poor, the youth, and the small businesses,” he said.

Gandhi also taunted Modi's Make In India slogan. “Sardar Patel’s statue is being made in China. It will be a shame that it will be brought with the emblem Made in China on it,” he said.

The other side: winnability vs nepotism

But there is a catch. Gandhi may have enthused party cadres and the populace in Saurashtra region, but this is not a direct ticket to victory and the ball is in the court of the Gujarat leadership of the party, which has been adept at squandering away opportunities. After the exit of Shankersinh Vaghela, Congress is left with no leader who has a state-level connect.

The party currently has four regional leaders — state chief Bharatsinh Solanki, two former presidents Arjun Modhwadia and Siddharth Patel, and a former leader of Opposition and a national spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil — but none of them were able to win their own seats in the previous elections. Though Gohil later won a by-election, it was from the Kutch region and not from his home district of Bhavnagar.

Solanki could not protect his Anand Lok Sabha seat in 2014, which was nurtured over years by his illustrious father and former union minister Madhavsinh Solanki, also a four-time chief minister of Gujarat. In fact, there has been a litany of complaints about his arrogant style of functioning forcing the central leadership to clip his wings recently by the appointment of four working presidents to assist him.

As Gandhi flew to Delhi, a party strategist warned against nepotism in selecting candidates.

“We lost many crucial seats in previous elections because the criterion for candidate selection was not winnability but proximity to the local leaders. If we are able to set this right, all the effort that Gandhi made during his sweltering tour could bear fruit. Not otherwise,” a party strategist told FirstPost.

For now, the party is waiting for Rahul’s next three-day sojourn to central and north Gujarat on 9 October.

Updated Date: Sep 30, 2017 22:26 PM

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