In Gujarat, Congress is on the upswing, but Rahul Gandhi's challenge is in breaking BJP's urban support base
The Congress had long been in the dumps in Gujarat during Modi's tenure, but it appears to be on the upswing now. Rahul Gandhi must take a close look at the reasons for this change.
Political tempers are rising in Gujarat in the run-up to the state Assembly polls slated for December this year. One one hand, the ruling BJP, which is facing anti-incumbency, finds itself on the backfoot. On the other hand, the opposition Congress finds itself oscillating between enthusiasm and euphoria.While the first motivates one to perform better, the other leads to a false sense of complacency.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has visited Gujarat four times in recent times, and is in Gandhinagar on Monday. In the context of the situation mentioned above, he could do with a closer look at the cause and effect factors that are making this contest a slugfest.
The Congress had long been in the dumps after Chief Minister Narendra Modi pushed it into virtual obsolescence through the three Vidhan Sabha elections during his tenure. However, the Congress mood is now on the upswing after the last Rajya Sabha election in the state. The contest saw old warhorse Shankersinh Vaghela rebel against the party, and Ahmed Patel, political advisor to Congress president Sonia Gandhi scrape through to the House of Elders by the skin of his teeth. Both developments took place in close succession. Both reshaped politics in Gujarat.
BJP president Amit Shah had hoped that the election would mark his triumphal call to arms, and that the saffron party would effect Patel's stunning ouster. However, it turned out to be a testosterone dose for the opposition. Ditto the departure of Vaghela. Good riddance for the Congress,is how they put it now.
Rahul’s visits to Gujarat have been receiving an enthusiastic public response. It was noticeable in the informal Sabarmati riverfront chat in Ahmedabad, the Saurashtra visit beginning from Dwarka via the pilgrim town of Chotila, and the third one in central Gujarat. The visits were flavoured by a good mix of political ‘herbs,’ and garnished with a dash of religious ‘spices’ to get the right anti-Modi taste. Rahul seems to have matured as a politician. He has been stirring the right chords—paying obeisance at Dwarka and Chotila, dwelling on unemployment amongst the youth, the rising suicides amongst farmers, the issue of Shah’s son which shot into headlines and the like.
The Congress is further bolstered by the lukewarm response to BJP’s poll forays in the public domain.The Narmada yatra, which criss-crossed the state, did not receive the expected welcome, nor did the Gujarat Gaurav yatra. The latter was expected to revive memories of Chief Minister Modi’s statewide tour after the 2002 Godhra train carnage, which bore excellent electoral results.
However, there is a need to examine the finer print. Is the prevalent popular mood a vote of confidence in the Congress, or is it caused by rising anger against the ruling BJP in the state? People in India grudgingly admire strong political leaders, even those who become a law unto themselves.Take the case of Indira Gandhi and now Narendra Modi. The present prime minister may heap criticism on the late prime minister of the country, but there is more than striking similarity on many counts between the two leaders and their style of governance.
Modi’s consistent return to power in Gujarat proves that he had the pulse of the people. He was the party and he was the government in Gujarat. Like the pied piper, he may have kept people in thrall, but the disillusionment has been rapid in the period thereafter. Modi’s successor Anandiben was seen as stubborn, but her successor Vijay Rupani—a good person—is seen as Amit Shah’s man.Both pale into insignificance when compared to Modi and such comparisons leave a strong imprint on Gujarati psyche.
Thus, all the problems that have followed Modi’s departure to Delhi—whether the Patidar agitation,the OBC strife or the Dalit agitation— are seen to be rooted in the post- Modi leadership. There is not an iota of doubt that the mishandling and the internal bickering of the Gujarat BJP leaders has seen the rise of the youth triumvirate of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mevani.
But although the Congress may be happy with its campaign, the fact is that no one knows the problems the ruling party is facing in Gujarat better than Prime Minister Modi. Alighting from the stage after a public meeting in Vadodara on Sunday, he pointed out to a local BJP leader that there were more outsiders than locals. The implication was obvious. It is no wonder that he has chosen to project himself, seeking to send out a message to the electorate to vote keeping him in mind.This is exactly what he meant when he said during his public address on Sunday that having governments from the same party at the Centre and in the state can do wonders for Gujarat. This will be his last emotional tug at the Gujarati conscience.
The Congress considers the 2015 local self-government elections held in the backdrop of the Patidar stir, as the turning point. But the fact remains that though the Congress swept the countryside,the urban support base, though marginally eroded,remained largely intact. The BJP won the municipal corporations of Ahmedabad, Varodara, Rajkot, Surat, Jamnagar and Bhavnagar.
At this juncture, there are reasons to believe that though rural and even semi-urban areas are against the BJP, the urbanites though unhappy have not keeled over. A 9 percent vote difference (47.9 percent to the BJP and 38.9 percent to the Congress) separated the two opponents in 2012. While the BJP is expected to dominate the urban seats, a swing towards the Congress in the rural areas can bring the current opposition at par, or even give it a marginal edge. But in the final reckoning, 40 or 45 seats that can swing either way will hold the key to who rules in Gandhinagar. For Modi, the stakes are extremely high, and he will throw everything at his command to win Gujarat at any cost. A loss in Gujarat will make his journey to winning the 2019 general elections difficult.
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