Tough task, but not impossible
With just three weeks left for the first phase of the crucial state Assembly elections in Gujarat, the political situation at ground level in this traditional stronghold of the BJP is steadily shifting in favor of the Congress Party which has been out of power for the last twenty-two years. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi who is single-handedly spearheading the election campaign for the last two weeks is getting big response from all sections of Gujaratis in his meetings and road shows sending alarm signals to the BJP. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken it up as a personal challenge and in the remaining period before the elections, he will be the main campaigner of the BJP in the state covering all the districts in his extensive election tour programme. It is also a do or die battle for him as the outcome of the Gujarat elections will set the pace for the tenor of the political developments leading to the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
The sudden change in the political mood in the conservative Hindutva strong Gujarat can be attributed to two developments. First, the present Government's utter failure in social as also on economic fronts is now starkly visible and no amount of official propaganda is able to hide the damages that have been done by the Prime Minister's decision to implement demonetisation and introduce GST without adequate preparation. Gujarat is a land of traders and they are experiencing the day to day sufferings from both the measures. Second is certainly the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a more mature and responsible political leader who is talking sense in his campaign meetings and is mentioning the popular issues which are really affecting the lives of the common masses. After a long time, the Congress scion has been able to establish a rapport with the mood of the common masses. People are listening to him seriously and this is a big factor which has emerged favouring the Congress campaign in the recent days. In the battle between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the younger one is scoring as of now. This competition will intensify in the coming three weeks till polling days and the Congress organisation has to convert this goodwill among the masses into votes through mobilisation in the polling booths.
For the country's GOP, it is a good development that the Party leaders are now really conscious of the fact that the Party remains too weak to fight the BJP in electoral battle on its own these days and it needs strong allies who are positioned to fight the BJP in the state. Rahul has done the right thing by working out an understanding with the young leaders of the patidars, OBCs and SC, STs as also dalits and this has already created panic in the BJP leadership. The efforts of the BJP leaders to malign the patidar leader Hardik Patel through the circulation of a sex video, indicate the sign of nervousness at the emergence of this strong alliance. The BJP with its strong base among the traders and the middle class never thought that the demoralised Congress would really be in a position to give any fight in the Assembly elections. But now, they are witnessing that the Congress VP is rallying all anti-BJP forces for fighting the BJP and if that clicks, the arithmetic of the castes will go against the BJP.
Numerically, the OBCs form the biggest group in Gujarat. The two sub castes of Thakurs account for 22 per cent of their population. OBCs have been extending support to Alpesh Thakur as he has been focusing on immediate economic issues facing the OBCs like joblessness and farm distress. Alpesh has been attending to all local issues and the merger of his forum with the Congress, has given the Gujarat Congress a big boost in going to many of the areas of the state where the Party has little base support. While Hardik Patel and Mavani's agitational programmes focused on the demands of their respective communities, Thakur's campaign has given his movement wider dimension cutting across all social groups. Congress leadership has to take full advantage of the base support of these three streams in the districts where the GOP lacks organisational base as compared to the BJP.
In the 2012 Assembly elections, the BJP got 119 seats out of the total of 182 while the Congress got 57 seats. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP got all the 26 seats but this outcome was something unusual. Usually, the difference between the BJP and the Congress varies from 5 per cent to 10 per cent in terms of vote percentage and the shifting of the loyalties of one caste combination can alter the outcome. In the coming assembly election, if the Congress can effectively use the alliance of OBC, dalits, Patidars and Muslims, the electoral arithmetic will be in favour of the Congress but that will require tough organisational work by the Congress and the alliance workers. Right now, Hardik and his two friends are in a fighting mood against BJP. That has to be galvanised further in the remaining days of the campaign.
Rahul Gandhi has to expand the scope of the alliance by having an understanding with both NCP and Sharad Yadav led JD(U).These parties have limited bases but their support is crucial in marginal seats. The Left, both the CPI and the CPI(M) have got some supporting base among the workers through their trade unions. This support has to be ensured also. So far, the Congress leadership has shown flexibility and wisdom in dealing with allies in Gujarat. This has to be expanded to ensure that all the political forces opposed to the BJP, are brought under the umbrella of the anti-BJP combination. Rahul Gandhi should act as the leader of the national opposition against the BJP and not just as the Congress VP.
For Rahul Gandhi, this is a historic opportunity to prove himself. Gujarat elections is sure to act as a game changer in national politics. Congress has to reinvent its el in terms of its economic programme. The Congress VP has been articulating the most pressing economic issues in his election speeches. He has to take the lead in preparing a minimum programme rejecting neo-liberal ideas that have wrecked the Indian economy. He can take lessons from Jeremy Corbyn of Britain and Bernie Sanders of USA. These two old men are most popular in their respective countries among the youth due to the sheer strength of their pro-people programmes. In this birth centenary year of his grandmother Indira Gandhi which also coincides with the centenary of the Great November Revolution in Russia in 1917, Rahul can work on a minimum programme for the anti-BJP opposition front which guarantees rights to food, shelter, employment, free education, free healthcare, and social security for the old and disabled. Such a composite minimum programme can act as the basis for a broad-based anti-BJP front which will fight the BJP both inside and outside Parliament to bring about the change in 2019.
(The author is Editor-in-Chief of IPA. The views expressed are strictly personal.)