Gujarat Assembly Election 2017: Opinion poll shows Congress' strategy rejig working; narrows gap with BJP
Since August, the Congress has gained the support of nearly 14 percent more voters. Its predicted vote share now stands at 43 percent, the same as the BJP.
The latest pre-poll survey conducted by ABP-CSDS echoes a question people on the ground in Gujarat have been asking for the past two weeks: "Congress aave chhe? (Is the Congress returning to power?)"
The survey indicates that the momentum is with the Congress. Since August, the Congress has gained the support of nearly 14 percent more voters. Its predicted vote share now stands at 43 percent, the same as the BJP's. In August, the BJP was expected to trounce the Congress with a vote share of 59 percent and a projected win in 144-152 seats. But now, the ruling party has slipped so much that it is projected to just about hit the half-way mark in the 182-member Gujarat Assembly.
How is Congress turning it around?
Four important changes appear to be helping the Congress fight back. One, the strategy of erasing the image of the party being anti-Hindu. Two, ban on the entry of outsiders in the electoral arena. Three, fighting the election the conventional way by going door to door. Four, letting Narendra Modi respond to Rahul Gandhi and Hardik Patel counter the prime minister.
The decision to let Gandhi embrace soft-Hindutva was deliberate. At a meeting of party's top strategists attended by Gandhi and Ashok Gehlot, who is party in-charge of Gujarat, it was decided that the BJP would not be allowed the luxury of running away with the Hindutva narrative.
To erase the impression of the Congress being anti-Hindu, it was agreed the party would project Gandhi as a devout Hindu; not mention the R and G words – riots and Godhara – during the campaign; and ask Muslims to participate without drawing attention to their identity.
The argument was simple: The BJP is good at mobilising voters in the name of Hindutva. But, when it comes to social engineering, the party struggles to come up with a fail-proof strategy. This learning was emphasised by the BJP's win in Uttar Pradesh and the debacle in Bihar. So, the Congress decided to simultaneously work on its anti-Hindu image and build a rainbow coalition of castes and communities.
This strategy of denying BJP the opportunity to fall back on Hindutva by positioning the Congress also as pro-Hindu has worked so far. The survey shows that the Congress has made deep inroads into the BJP vote banks of tribals, traders and Patidars. These voters have so far stayed immune to the BJP's call for supporting the party, that is the original proponent of Hindutva and patron of nationalists.
The other important change in the Congress strategy is to not let Modi get away with his searing rhetoric and claims. His every statement is now scrutinised and countered immediately. In doing this, the party has realised that when it comes to rebuttals, Gandhi is no match for the prime minister. So, the party spars with Modi only on social media. The task of taking him on with a louder rhetoric is left to Hardik, a fiery orator trained in the Sangh-style of polemics.
This war on two fronts against Modi is now evident in the alacrity with which the Congress attacks the prime minister on social media and the ferocity of Hardik's verbal attack at rallies in Saurashtra and south Gujarat. A few days ago, when Modi claimed that former prime minister Indira Gandhi had covered her nose during her 1979 visit to Morbi, because of the stench of carcasses, the Congress immediately released the cover of a local magazine that even RSS workers who visited the site had to mask their faces.
Simultaneously, Hardik launched a verbal attack on the prime minister, asking how Modi could come "running" to Morbi from Trivandrum, where he claimed to be on the day of the dam burst that killed hundreds of people.
So, while Gandhi attacks the BJP and its policies, Hardik follows Modi on the ground. In his speeches, he challenges the prime minister's statements, denounces claims of development and chides Gujaratis for believing everything he tells them.
Gandhi berates them for getting used to "slave mentality" and exhorts them to question the BJP's narrative. Since Modi has decided to ignore Hardik as an upstart, the young leader now has the advantage of creating his own narrative without a proper counter.
Whether the Congress goes on to win the election will depend on how effectively it is able to implement another change it has made in its strategy. This year, instead of letting its other leaders address election rallies, it has asked them to go door to door, mobilise workers and manage booths on polling day. The task of holding rallies, mobilising voters has been left to Gandhi, Hardik, Alpesh Thakore and Jignesh Mewani. Its own stalwarts have been asked to concentrate on reaching out to voters and ensure their anger translates into electoral gains.
The fear within the Congress is that its workers are not as dedicated as the BJP cadres. After a few hours of polling, they leave the booths and go home. Also, the BJP has the advantage of last-mile connectivity with voters because of its numerical strength and technological edge.
The Congress is hoping its own teams will combine effectively with dedicated supporters of Hardik, Thakore and Mewani on polling day to ensure the Congress indeed returns to power.
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