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In Gujarat, a Revitalised Congress Sends the Assembly Elections Careening Towards a Photo Finish

The party is putting up a fierce fight by letting the Hardik-Alpesh-Jignesh trio capture the caste-based anger against the BJP, while Rahul focuses on larger political economy issues.

Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi. Does he have what it takes to swing the Gujarat elections? Credit: Reuters

Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi. Does he have what it takes to swing the Gujarat elections? Credit: Reuters

Ahmedabad: The impending elevation of Rahul Gandhi to the post of Congress party president has curiously coincided with the Gujarat assembly elections. Over the last few months, the Congress machinery has ensured that Gandhi is seen as the chief decision-maker for the party in Gujarat. Preceded by a concerted attempt at remaking his image, starting with his US trip a few months ago, the party relegated  president Sonia Gandhi to the background in order to make way for its future leader.

According to sources in the Congress, Rahul has been involved at each level of planning the Gujarat contest. “Not only did he take the lead in appointing a team to oversee the polls, he was also the main driving force behind making the manifesto, selecting candidates, and the issues on which the party campaign should be conducted,” a close confidante of Rahul said.

Rahul is clearly the face of the party in this campaign. His projection as the topmost leader is an indication of  the Congress’s hopes for a win the poll in BJP’s citadel after a wait of 22 years. The energy and effort the party has invested in Gujarat, despite its weak organisation in the state, also shows that it considers a victory here could kick off its campaign in other states, like the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, all of which go to the polls in 2018.

Whether the Congress eventually wins Gujarat or not will be seen on December 18, but its multi-pronged approach does indicate that this is the most wholehearted dive the party has made in its recent electoral history, especially in a state where it is locked in a direct face-off with the BJP.

The party narrative

The overarching narrative that the Congress has tried to advance in Gujarat is a combination of economic and identity-based concerns.

For one, Rahul has not discounted the Gujarat model but made it clear that he wants to reinvent it. The party’s campaign has used the metaphor of the iconic Amul brand to offer a new vision – that of a cooperative model of economy with the common people as stakeholders. He has contrasted this with a corporate model of growth, which the BJP is seen to represent.

This “cooperative versus corporate” distinction is reflected in Rahul’s frequent usage of phrases like “Amul versus Nano” or “MMM (Modi Marketing Model)”.

“The idea is to send a message that problems like agrarian distress, unemployment, and declining small and medium-scale businesses can be solved if the government follows a cooperative model of growth on the lines of Amul (which revolutionised the dairy industry in India by decentralising its transactions). We want to say that Modi’s model has only empowered the corporates and did not create opportunities for common people,” Rahul’s aide told The Wire.

An example of the Congress party's election marketing campaign, riffing off the classic Amul cartoons. Credit: Congress

An example of the Congress party’s election marketing campaign, riffing off the classic Amul cartoons. Credit: Special Arrangement

A large section of people with whom The Wire interacted may not have grasped the exact message of this campaign but it is common to hear complaints about the BJP’s support for big industry. 

“The BJP government belongs to the Adanis and Ambanis, not us,” said Dalpatbhai Patel, a commission agent in the cumin seed mandi of Unjha in north Gujarat, echoing the sentiments of several others present during the conversation.

“The BJP has won so many times because of us. But it has become ahankaari (arrogant) now. Steps like demonetisation and GST have broken our backs,” Dalpatbhai added. Indeed, many in Gujarat complained about the BJP’s apparent arrogance as they thought no other government could have implemented demonetisation and GST in short intervals. The impact these steps had on the widespread informal economy in the state is a reason for great discontent across Gujarat.

In such a context, the Congress’ economic alternative has had some traction as its leaders haven’t missed a chance to highlight the sufferings of common people because of “MMM”.

Turn to caste

Second, the Congress has also systematically aligned itself to various caste-based social movements  in the past few years. For instance, Alpesh Thakor, the newly-inducted Congress leader, rose to prominence because of a reformist movement against prevalent alcoholism in his Thakor community. He demanded that the prohibition policy be strictly followed in the state as he thought addiction was ruining the social fabric of his community, already reeling under poverty.

Similarly, although the party did not initially support the Patidar demand for reservation, it lent a sympathetic ear to the problems of the group.

In this campaign cartoon, the Congress looks to attack several of the Modi government’s decisions that have adversely affected common people and small businesses. Credit: Special Arrangement

One of the Rahul’s team members saw these alliances in an economic light. “See, over the last few years, most rural communities in Gujarat have been protesting against the government. Along with the widely-known problems of Patidars and Dalits, Rabaris, Mers, Kolis have all been demanding some thing or the other. We feel that the rise in such sentiments among different communities is directly related to the failure of Modi’s model of growth. So we tried to engage with them,” he said.

An Ahmedabad-based Congress worker confirmed this view. He said that the drastic impact of the farming crisis over the last three years has led to huge discontent among communities. “Since people articulate grievances only through their caste leaders, we have seen the number of such caste-based protests rising.”

The Congress gradually, but consistently, became the political voice for such caste-based movements. In the 1980s, the party’s KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formula triggered a reaction from the dominant communities. The BJP attracted these caste groups by communalising their protests on Hindu-Muslim lines. What we are doing now is addressing their economic anxieties in whatever shape they are being articulated. The BJP accuses us of dividing society on caste lines but what was it doing all these years, if not caste and religious polarisation?” a Delhi-based Congress leader asked.

Stemming internal dissent

Three, the party has made efforts to be viewed as an united force. The Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC), which suffered intense factional fights within and was unable to produce even one state-wide popular leader, was sidelined.

Instead, Rahul created two teams, one to oversee electoral strategies, and another to do ground-level surveys. The first team is led by former chief minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, and the second is being guided by Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda.

While Gehlot has been very influential in selecting candidates and negotiating with different community leaders like Mevani, Hardik and Alpesh, Gowda is said to have convinced Rahul that the focus of the party’s campaign should be on the youth.

A Business Standard report quotes a Congress leader as saying, “Our survey found that younger voters, even in urban areas, don’t have any resonance of the 2002 riots (which swung the Hindu vote in favour of BJP). Their concern is education and jobs.”

The report said that an internal party survey showed that around 23 million voters of the total 43.3 million in Gujarat are below the age of 40. This nature of Gujarat’s electorate helped the party shift its usual generic campaigns towards having a special focus on youth.

Along with this, it appears that the party has not buckled under the pressure of different GPCC satraps. A Delhi-based Congress leader said that Gehlot’s team decided the candidatures in at least 169 seats of the total 182. The rest were given to the Hardik Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), Jignesh Mevani and Chotubhai Vasava, the adivasi leader from the Sharad Yadav-led Janata Dal (United)’s faction.

He further said that unlike previous elections, the party could decide the candidate’s list without external pressures. “Earlier, the party would struggle to fit each faction’s preferences into the list and but this time only winnability was a consideration. Barring in six or seven seats, none of the party candidates faced any rebellion  that was uncontrollable. Most importantly, the party did not face any dissent in Saurashtra and north Gujarat, where it expects to do well,” he said.

He also said that the party has given considerable importance to booth-level management in this election, an aspect that is thought of as the BJP’s specialty. Alpesh Thakor, in an interview to The Wire, had said that he had created teams of 100 people per booth as part of the party’s micro-management strategy.  

Manifesto and social media strategy

Four, Rahul appointed technocrat Sam Pitroda as the head of its manifesto committee. Pitroda included the cooperative economy framework in the party manifesto as a systemic alternative to BJP’s model.

“Gujarat is at a crossroad. The Gujarat model of development with focus on big factories, big projects and foreign direct investment has been a top-down approach. This development model has ignored the farmers, SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), women, students and traders. What we need is a bottom-up approach, rooted in Gandhian values, focusing on family, culture. The Gandhian model of development will focus on the talents and needs of the people of Gujarat,” GPCC president Bharat Sinh Solanki told the media while releasing the manifesto.

From a farm loan waiver and slash in power tariff to unemployment and education allowance and free housing for single women, the party has included a range of promises if it comes to power.

Similarly, the party has been quite aggressive on social media in the last six months. Its online campaigns like “development has gone crazy” or “22 saalon ka hisaab, Gujarat maange jawaab (Gujarat demands answers for 22 years of BJP rule)” received wide traction. In fact, the party unusually had an early mover advantage over the BJP on various social media platforms as far as the Gujarat campaign is concerned. This campaign has had some impact on the ground, especially on the youth.

The online campaign specifically targeted the BJP president Amit Shah and linked him to recent controversies about his son. The Congress frequently used the term “Shah-Zada” to refer to this controversy. Similarly, exactly like the BJP reference of “remote control ki sarkar (remote-controlled government) against the UPA government, the Congress popularised its allegation that chief minister Vijay Rupani actually took orders from BJP president Amit Shah, who controlled the government from Delhi. This was one of the reasons Shah has remained in the background through the BJP’s campaign.

Impact?

Despite remaining out of power and having a much weaker organisational machinery than the BJP, the grand-old party appears to have put up a good show. It has let the young Hardik-Alpesh-Jignesh trio take the lead in capturing caste-based anger against the BJP in its favour, while simultaneously foregrounding its president-in-waiting to do the larger political talk.

It also understands that its contest with the BJP is primarily a battle for Hindu votes. Rahul’s frequent visits to Hindu shrines or the party’s promise to make more gaushalas and distribute mangalsutras to poor Hindu women are tactical moves to draw Hindus, although the party’s Hinduness is Gandhian rather than the more aggressive Hindutva.

At the moment, the young leadership of the Congress and its allies appear to be viewed as seekers of parivartan (change) as against an “arrogant” BJP establishment. The only factor working in favour of the BJP currently is the widespread popularity of  Modi.

While the Gujarat polls are set for a photo finish, it will be seen as the coming together of the Congress machinery, which had scattered in the face of many defeats and internal factionalism. Over the last five years, the party’s decline has been directly proportional to the BJP’s ascendance.

While critics may say that the party has fallen back on the shoulders of the Gandhi family, his leadership in Gujarat is playing the role of  an energy booster for the Congress at this juncture. Irrespective of a win or loss, it hopes to maintain this momentum in the weeks and months ahead.

  • ashok759

    Shankarsinh Vaghela’s departure has caused barely a ripple.

  • alok asthana

    The BJP must lose Gujarat (and then India). Not that Congress has become any better ( maybe yes, maybe not), but BJP has become too dirty, too evil, too cocky.