Gujarat polls present a tough practice ground for Rahul Gandhi, Congress to counter Narendra Modi in 2019

Ahmedabad: Ahead of the most crucial Gujarat Assembly election, the sentiment of the people of the state is caught somewhere between two extreme schools of wishful thinking — one believes that Congress is winning after 32 years of exile and the other thinks that there is no way Gujarat can dump Narendra Modi, either as the chief minister or as the prime minister.

Ironically, though neither of the two schools wants to go wrong. Those who think Congress will win don’t want to take any chances and could be heard saying 'well there may be some hidden undercurrent for Modi'. Those who think that BJP will win are only a little more optimistic, though they too don’t want to take any chances and could be heard saying 'well nobody is against Modi, the teething problems of GST and demonetisation are history'.

Any which way, the central theme is not Gujarat, it is Modi and his policies as the prime minister. The Gujarat Assembly Election 2017 is arguably a referendum of sorts on India 2019. While there is nothing new in saying this, it is also about one man who is preparing his ground for 2019 on the toughest turf: Rahul Gandhi.

 Gujarat polls present a tough practice ground for Rahul Gandhi, Congress to counter Narendra Modi in 2019

Rahul Gandhi in Vapi. Firstpost/Darshan Desai

He is addressing Gujarat, but en route to Gujarat, he is looking at India. He is trying his best and pulling out stops, but understands that if he loses Gujarat it is not a big deal compared to how it is for Modi. But if Congress makes BJP huff and puff for a victory in its prised invincible state, he sure has something to work on.

So, what exactly is Gandhi doing? First and foremost Gandhi understands that he is not a match to Modi or his high-pitched practised oratory, his connect with the people, his event management skills and the BJP’s organisational prowess.

So, he has to create a contrast. Gandhi’s campaign strategy through his three-day sojourns to three regions in Gujarat has been to emerge as a simple, friendly person who is actually a common man. This was Modi’s favourite theme that he was not actually a chief minister but a common man, like a pradhan santri. Similes and coinages are Modi’s specialty something which Rahul is probably trying to emulate with Gabbar Singh Tax for GST.
Albeit Rahul is not ascribing any such coinages to himself — again to create the contrast — but he uses taunts as he tells the crowds that a Congress government will listen to your mann ki baat and "not enforce our mann ki baat".

After he returned from Rae Bareli to check on the victims of the NTPC blast midway through his three-day South Gujarat campaign, Gandhi called Congress leaders Ashok Gehlot, Ahmed Patel, Bharatsinh Solanki, Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhwadia, Siddharth Patel and others at a local restaurant, Giriraj Restaurant, in industrial town Vapi for dinner. And the restaurant was not vacated for him, many others continued with their food at the crowded noisy place.

"We did not invite him to join for dinner at the restaurant, he called us. It so happened that he prefers to stay at the Circuit House and he checked in there, and we all, me Ashok Gehlot others, stayed at a hotel. Gandhi asked a waiter at the guest house about a restaurant close by and he suggested Giriraj, so he sent us a message that we go there for dinner," recalls former state Congress president Arjun Modhwadia talking to Firstpost.

"This is nothing. When we were travelling in central Gujarat, just after he had finished a public meeting in Bodeli (tribal area in Chhota Udepur district), he said chai peete hain and we stopped at a typical roadside highway dhabha. He had pakodas and wafers there,” Lalji Desai, a grassroots Congress worker, who is part of the organisation during Gandhi’s election campaign, recalls.

Modhwadia says, "This was a thatched rural tea joint. He stopped the bus and got down first, then we followed."

He continued, "We were travelling to Vyara (tribal town in Tapi district (60 kilometres from Surat) in his campaign bus on the night of 1 November when Gandhi got the news of the Rae Bareli incident. He was to stay at the Vyara Circuit House and proceed to Surat airport the next morning but we decided that he should stay at The Taj in Surat since it is closer to the airport.

"At The Taj, we booked a suite for him and we all took normal rooms. When Gandhi saw it, he immediately refused the suite and said he would stay in a normal room like others."

He is scarcely seen taking the chartered chopper but prefers regular flights and takes the economy class with his laptop bag hanging on his shoulders. "On a recent trip, he came by Indigo and left by SpiceJet," a party leader said.

According to Desai, it has often happened that when there is no scheduled flight, Gandhi would stay put at night and take the next flight in the morning. "At the airport, I have seen him taking the common gate to enter," he adds.

The mode of the campaign also seems to have been strategically planned to ensure that his drawbacks of oratory and approach, unlike the heft and flamboyance of Modi, are contrasted by his simple and mild demeanour. Through all his three three-day regional sojourns, which itself is new, the strategy was to have personal street corner interactions and chatting up with people and fewer public meetings since addressing the far sitting crowd is something he is still picking up.

"Going to people instead of calling them to you through crowd mobilisation is better," says a party insider. "When you can’t better your opponent by something he is adept at and also overdoes it, you try to create a contrast," he smiled.

It is a state election campaign, but Rahul goes straight at the Modi government as though it is 2019 and tries to hit where it hurts the most — GST, demonetization, unemployment, Patidars, farmer distress and price rise.

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Updated Date: Nov 24, 2017 16:30:55 IST