Congress' Gujarat plan: Strategy is to confine BJP bigwigs to constituencies, strike OBC-Patidar alliance

To understand the Gujarat elections and Congress strategy, spare a thought for Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani.

Just before Rupani left for Rajkot on Sunday to file his nomination, Rupani made a surprise visit to former chief minister Keshubhai Patel's residence in Ahmedabad.

Patel is to Gujarat BJP what LK Advani is to its central leadership — a margdarshak who needs to be kept in good humour for fear of a tantrum before a big event. Periodically, the state BJP makes token gestures of their respect for the former chief minister who had rebelled in 2012 to float his own party but had to return after being humiliated at the hustings.

However, Sunday's visit to Patel's house by Rupani wasn't one of those public-displays-of-affection for a marginalised leader. It was a tactical ploy triggered by the first list of Congress candidates for the Assembly elections.

Rupani is contesting the election from Rajkot (West). In a bid to corner him, the Congress has moved its Rajkot (East) legislator Indranil Rajyaguru to the chief minister's turf. And, as they say in cricket, game on.

 Congress Gujarat plan: Strategy is to confine BJP bigwigs to constituencies, strike OBC-Patidar alliance

File image of Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat. PTI

Rajyaguru is Mr Moneybags for the Gujarat Congress. His pockets are so deep that he not only has his own team of workers on the ground, but also has the capability to finance candidates in the entire region. Given his influence, his original constituency Rajkot (East) is considered safe for the Congress. That he has decided to shift and take the chief minister head-on is symptomatic of the Congress aggression in the 2017 elections.

Rajkot (West) has a sizeable population of Patidars. For almost a year, since he shifted to the new constituency with the announced intention of defeating Rupani, Rajyaguru has been wooing the affluent Patidars. His presence on the ground with a legion of supporters and deep pockets has rattled the chief minister. Wary of a war on hand, Rupani met Patel on Sunday, hoping that the Patidar stalwart, whose roots are in Rajkot, would campaign for him and help him retain the seat.

On paper, the Gujarat chief minister's discomfiture suggests the Congress finally has a Gujarat plan. Its first list of 77 candidates declared on Sunday suggests the party is trying to work on a strategy that has three key elements: Confine the BJP bigwigs to their constituencies, strike a Patidar-OBC alliance, and give voters the option of electing fresh faces. It also conveys its intention of taking the fight right into the rival bastion for the first time since the advent of the Narendra Modi era in Gujarat.

Its willingness to take the fight to the BJP is reflected also in its decision to pit its local heavyweight Arjun Modhwadia against powerful minister Babu Bokhiria in Porbandar. Modhwadia had lost the previous election from Porbandar and it would have been more prudent for the Congress to find for him a safe seat. But, the perception in the state is that only Modhwadia can beat Bokhiria. And the Congress has decided to accept the challenge.

The other strategy on display is the attempt to bolster its erstwhile KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) coalition by adding Patidars and other sections of OBCs to it. To gain from the momentum generated by the expected support from Patidars led by Hardik Patel and OBCs led by Alpesh Thakore, it has given 43 tickets to members of these two communities. In its list are 20 Patidars and 23 OBCs, a clear signal to the electoral importance of these sections in the election.

The numbers are significant because the first round of polling scheduled for December 9 is in Saurashtra and South Gujarat, where both the Patidars and OBCs can swing the results in a majority of the seats if they vote in unison. The Congress is hoping that by striking a delicate balance, it would be able to attract voters from both the communities.

This is, of course, a difficult task considering that both the communities are at opposite ends of the reservation debate in Gujarat. The Patidars are seeking reservation in the OBC category. And the OBCs are opposed to it because Patidars can be accommodated only at their cost. In spite of this rivalry for the same piece of quota pie, the Congress is hoping that Patidars and OBCs would bury their differences to defeat the BJP.

The Congress list has 53 new faces and 14 legislators. This is in accordance with the promise made by Rahul Gandhi to its incumbent MLAs that their loyalty would be rewarded with tickets in the next election. He had given this assurance a few months ago when the Gujarat Congress was facing rebellion because of Shankersinh Vaghela's exit and the BJP's attempt to lure its legislators.

The biggest challenge for the Congress, now, would be to handle Hardik Patel and his associates, who want their pound of the electoral pie in lieu of their support. Three members of Hardik's team figured in the Congress list.

However, soon after the first list was declared, Dinesh Bambhania, Patel's close aide and convenor of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, went into a sulk, complaining that his team had not been consulted by the Congress. Though Hardik Patel is yet to speak up, there is speculation that his associates want more tickets.

Only after it clears the PAAS hurdle, can the Congress consider itself in the race. PAAS, ironically, could be its biggest failure.

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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2017 16:58:58 IST