Rahul and the last phase of campaign
Support for Congress is on the rise as Gujarat poll draws nearer.
The Congress Party is enthused that it is in the fight in Gujarat polls after losing power for more than two decades. The party is going all out to woo the Gujarat electorate. "The difference this time is that the groundswell situation is a basic point in our favour," a senior Congress leader claimed. It is banking on the severe anti-incumbency faced by BJP; the economic slowdown, the dissatisfaction among the OBC, Patidar, and Dalit communities, the adverse impact of demonetisation and GST on small traders and middle class, and the absence of a tall BJP leader at the local level. Also, the difference in the vote shares of the two parties has been around 11 per cent in the last three elections but BJP has won double the number of seats than the Congress.
The second advantage is the enthusiastic response to Rahul Gandhi's campaign, which is more personal interactions and roadside chats than addressing big rallies. Gandhi has particularly made an impression in the Saurashtra region, a BJP stronghold, which sends 52 MLAs to the 182-member Gujarat Assembly. The alliance with the Patidar leader Hardik Patel is a shrewd move.
Gujarat is entirely a Rahul show as Sonia Gandhi has taken a back seat. Also, Rahul has been spending most of his time in Gujarat since his successful return from the US in September and is closely monitoring the campaign.
The Congress has devised a multi-pronged strategy to fight the Gujarat poll using the caste card, religious card, development card, and social media card. It does not want to make a Modi versus Rahul contest. The strategy is to adopt the 'winnability' criteria for tickets. This has been declared often but never implemented. One has to see how many rebel candidates spring up after the final ticket distribution.
The party has adopted a soft Hindutva line to counter the BJP charge that the Congress is a party of Muslim appeasement and anti-Hindu. Also, a section in the Congress believes that it should get rid of this anti-Hindu perception. The Congress had tried this line even during the Rajiv Gandhi era when he reversed the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case through Parliament and also opened the locks of the Babri Masjid gates, trying to appease both communities but ultimately, alienating both. The party again tried it in 2002 Gujarat polls to neutralise BJP's strategy of cornering all the Hindu votes and again alienated both. Eyebrows are being raised at the Gandhi scion visiting temples in Gujarat. After launching Gujarat poll campaign from the Dwarkadhish temple in Dwarka in September, he had offered prayers at the famous Ambaji temple, climbed the 1000 steps to seek the blessings of Goddess Chamunda in Chotila and paid obeisance at the temples of Veer Meghmaya in Patan, Khodiyar Maa in Varana, and Maa Bahuchar at Becharaji in Mehsana district. When BJP criticised the temple visits Rahul asserted, "I am a devotee of Lord Shiva. Let them say whatever they want to say. My truth is with me."
Then there is the caste card. The Congress no longer has the social base, which it had in the eighties. The successful caste formula called KHAM - Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, and Muslim used in the eighties had disappeared in the past two decades. This time the party is trying to form a bloc comprising Patidars, Dalits, and OBCs. The wooing of three young caste leaders Hardik Patel (Patidars), Jingesh Mevani (Dalit), and the induction of Alpesh Thakore, a Back ward Classes leader into the Congress is part of this effort. However, it is not clear how much their influence can be translated into votes because the only thing common among these three leaders is their disenchantment with BJP.
The Congress has smartly refocused its campaign away from the identity politics to keep the Muslims away from electoral discourse. A Muslim Congress leader claims that "We should not be active at this moment. Ahmed Patel's Rajya Sabha elections have shown that whenever there is a Muslim candidate the BJP tried to polarise. Muslims know where to vote."
The party is focusing on BJP's area of maximum vulnerability. The Congress now wants to use the "Economy stupid" slogan. Gandhi recently said, "Narendra Modi fired two torpedoes at the Indian economy. The economy survived the first torpedo, but the second destroyed and sunk the economy. The first torpedo was note ban, the second was the badly implemented GST."
The party's reworked communication strategy with more focus on social media has also played a role in Congress's growing visibility. Even Congress is surprised at the media visibility of Rahul in recent times.
What is unfortunate is the negative campaign indulged in by both sides. The Congress should realise that Modi-bashing alone will not get votes, as it needs to come up with a different narrative and an attractive programme. The Gujarat polls are crucial for Congress to survive. It is equally crucial for Modi and his party chief Amit Shah as it is their home state.
Two recent opinion polls, — Times Now-VMR and India Today – Axis my India - predict a comfortable margin of victory for the ruling party. Will Rahul Gandhi be able to swing the state in his favour or will the Modi magic continue?
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)