Ahmedabad: It was close to 3 am and he had just won a battle of his life. A TV reporter asked him, “Sir, it must have been tough?”
“Tough? It was the toughest, I have contested five Lok Sabha and four Rajya Sabha elections but this was the toughest. I don’t know why,” Ahmed Patel paused looking at the floor, and shrugged, “I don’t know why me, why?” The signature coiffure, half concealed his strained forehead; he looked not like a victor on his face, but a survivor.
Suddenly, he shuddered as though with an adrenaline rush and got up to go, moving briskly towards his waiting car with journalists jostling behind him. As if on a cue, a local TV channel just then started playing the Bollywood tune, ‘woh siqandar hi doston kehlata hai, haari baazi ko jitna jisey aata hai‘. Suddenly, there was a glint in his small eyes as he slipped into his car, “Our MLAs resisted all temptations for me, sacrificed their family responsibilities for me, stood like a rock for me. I will take all care of them.”
Everytime he said “for me”, his fist hit his chest. “With people like them, there is no reason we will lose the assembly elections – we will win the December 2017 elections. 100%, we will, you will see”. There was steel in his eyes and subdued anger on his reddening face, as though he was saying, “Now, it is my turn and I will show them what it means to fiddle in a snake hole.”
Keeping with this tenor, Patel left Ahmedabad on Wednesday evening, giving a victory target of 125 seats out of 182 to the cadres. With this “I will show you” spirit, 14 back-stabbing MLAs were sacked by the time he had boarded his flight to Delhi, including Shankersinh Vaghela, his opponent in the right Rajya Sabha elections. Good riddance of bad rubbish – that’s how Ahmed Patel and the Congress’ rank and file are thinking of those who quit or have now been sacked.
If nothing else, the Shankersinh Vaghela shock and the providential survival from it have created a will to win and a raison d’etre for a moribund and rudderless Gujarat Congress. Ahmed Patel saw from close quarters a fast disintegrating apparatus in his home state only when the debris started falling on him directly. Now, he seems set to take charge not from the prism of Delhi but from the perspective of Gujarat.
But in the party, there is no Shankersinh Vaghela a.k.a. Bapu, the only one who had a state-level connect; there are those leaders who are no longer even regional satraps, which they used to be, and have not even been able to protect their own seats.
“We are unnecessarily making a big deal of Bapu and his state level stature. His own outfit, the erstwhile Rashtriya Janata Party could win only four seats in the late 1990s. The need is to give everyone his or her space,” the aggressive young Congress leader Jayrajsinh Parmar told a correspondent.
He is not entirely wrong. Ever since the BJP first came to power in Gujarat in 1995 to now, the Congress has always returned 50 to 60 legislators including during the 2002 Hindutva wave or in all the elections thereafter. “That way, we need to work for only 30 to 40 more seats to reach the halfway mark of 91 in the state assembly of 182 seats,” points out Himanshu Vyas, another second rung leader from Gandhinagar. Then, where is the problem? “You find out,” Vyas gave a mysterious smile.
Another leader, who did not wish to be identified for obvious reasons, has a reply. He said, “The BJP contests on how many seats? 182. The Congress contests on how many seats? 182. Right? Wrong. Once the candidates are decided, Congress effectively fights only for 130 seats.” He was pointing towards the groupism, which dominates the crucial candidate selection process in the party. “Yes, it is important that all aspirations are taken care of but proximity to a certain leader or leaders should not be the sole criterion to get a ticket,” he says.
The buzz in the party, post-Ahmed Patel’s victory, is that it was now high time the BJP was given a tough challenge. A collective feeling of helplessness had gripped the Congress when its leaders were virtually scrounging for one single vote; 14 of their MLAs having pulled the carpet right under their feet and they were all caught napping. This victory has prompted them to give it back with a vengeance.
It was unimaginable, otherwise, in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat that the Congress party could even think of winning targets, leave alone 125. The count would always be from the bottom about how many seats could be rescued from the BJP tsunami. Even the loss of 26 out of 26 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 did not shake them out of inertia.
This time is different and is palpable. “We wanted this determination and now you will see what it means to see the Congress party working for a prestige election,” says a spirited Laljibhai Desai, who comes from a civil society activism background and who has led several agitations against industrial giants taking over farmers’ lands. “There are so many issues waiting for the Congress to pick up and pursue aggressively. There is farmer distress, there is restlessness among the Adivasis over land rights, there are the still angry Patidars, there are Dalits and there are OBCs agitating everywhere in varying degrees,” says Desai. A quick recent survey conducted by the Congress across cities of BJP influence revealed that there is simmering anger among the traders and the middle class over the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which the party is likely to tap.
Besides these issues, the biggest challenge that the ruling BJP faces in Gujarat for the first time after 2002 is the absence of Narendra Modi from the scene. The first impact was felt during the peak of the Patidar agitation between 2015 and 2016 when the Congress snatched a majority of district and taluka (tehsil) panchayats from the ruling party. Soon after, the BJP had to change chief minister Anandiben Patel to bring in a docile Vijay Rupani. But there is no replacement for Modi.
For now, the BJP has set a target to win 151 seats and the Congress 125. After long, there is a semblance of a fight in Gujarat. Lets us wait till December.