In hindsight, it was probably a compliment to Narendra Modi’s political management. As soon as he left the state, one after another caste resentments came out in the open in the streets. Three of them, Patels led by Hardik Patel, OBCs led by Alpesh Thakore and scheduled castes or Dalits led by Jignesh Mevani, have made a dent in the ruling BJP’s election score. At the beginning of these elections, if the Congress seemed to be in contention at all – against the might of a supremely popular leader in his own home state – it was thanks to this trio. At the end of the elections, if the BJP ended up below the 100 mark for the first time in 22 years, it is thanks to this trio.
But this might not be such a good thing after all for the Congress in the long run. To understand why, first consider a bit of background.
The three young leaders have been clubbed together by circumstances, but they are as different as khakhras and theplas. Hardik Patel, the man who made the maximum noise, may take decades before maturing as a political leader. To hear him explain the logic of his demands is to marvel at the potential of Indian democracy to accommodate a whole range of characters. He apparently did not have any political leanings for or against BJP/Congress; he was available for whoever would satisfy the outlandish demand of a quota for Patels. Alpesh, on the other hand, is now on his way to becoming a regular career politician. His family was with the Congress, and now he has joined it too. Jignesh, the guy-next-door journalist, is altogether a third variety. He has been groomed in civil society and grassroots agitations (against, for example, industrial projects on farm lands). It remains to be seen how long he survives Gandhinagar politics with his jholawala ways. He had no love lost for BJP, but he did not join the Congress either, though the main Opposition party accommodated him in its sure-win Vadgam constituency.
These three leaders, maverick in their own different ways, emerged as the face of youth discontent brewing in Gujarat, and the Congress was smart enough to make good use of them. As Chief Minister Vijay Rupani put it towards the beginning of the campaign, the Congress basically outsourced its campaign to them.
Rahul Gandhi’s smart move of outsourcing, however, can only take the Congress this far, and no further. It can even prove counterproductive.
Alpesh, being part of the Congress family in a sense, is not a case of outsourcing. Jignesh, with his background, can turn critical of the Congress too if circumstances demand – he is an independent candidate after all. But Hardik is a freelancer. In helping itself to their booster dose, the Congress is binding itself to their differing agenda. The cause of OBCs and SCs is not a problem for the party. In fact, in the 1980s, it was the original champion of the OBCs and SCs. But in taking up the cause of the Patels, the party is repeating a mistake it made in supporting Chimanbhai Patel in 1991 – wooing the community that has long parted its ways with it, and in the process giving up what has been gained. The Patel community has been with the BJP for long. This time its vote was fragmented a bit, but the Patels are not going to throw their lot behind the Congress en mass en bloc.
Rahul Gandhi tried the piggyback strategy in Bihar too, and it has eventually failed. It’s time for him to realise that outsourcing is short-termism. In depending on outsiders, the Congress has failed to groom its own next-generation leaders, since Bharatsinh Solanki, Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhvadia and Siddharth Patel and others have been failing conclusively for 22 years now. Indeed, the party does not have a leader with across-the-state appeal since Chimanbhai – and even he returned to Gandhinagar not with the Congress but against the Congress.
But, well, that’s the Congress' destiny in BJP’s Gujarat in the absence of a well-oiled organisational and a confident cadre. Its supposedly strongest leader in the state in two decades was none other than Shankarsinh Vaghela, the original instance of outsourcing.
Ashish Mehta is with Governance Now.
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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2017 10:22:50 IST