Behind AAP’s First Success in Gujarat Is a Tale of Congress’s Deep Slumber

The malaise in the Congress in Gujarat runs deep, and is visible from how the party micro-manages its state leadership.

Ahmedabad: The Congress party in Gujarat is a party with a death wish.

There can’t be a better description for a political entity that loses as many as 200 seats in elections to various local bodies even before the first ballot is cast. Some seats were lost because the nominations were rejected, more were lost because the candidates themselves withdrew their papers at the eleventh hour.

And at some places – besides these 200 – candidates with the party’s mandates couldn’t file papers for they had been replaced at the last moment. In a few cases, such shortchanged candidates raised monetary allegations.

So, Tuesday’s results of elections to municipal corporations of six key cities of Gujarat, including Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar, are not an ode to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the AIMIM’s entry into Gujarat but an obituary for the Congress.

The numbers speak: The BJP improved its 2015 tally of 389 seats out of total 572 to as many as 483 out of 576 this time, while the Congress nosedived from 174 seats in 2015 to 55 in 2021.

Albeit, for argument’s sake, the urban conglomerates of Gujarat could scarcely identify themselves with the Congress. And polling for 31 district panchayats, 231 taluka (tehsil) panchayats and 81 municipalities (peri-urban areas) are still to take place on February 28. But then the lost 200 seats include many from these local bodies too.

The Congress was never as badly off during the 15-25 years of the BJP’s continuous rule in these municipal corporations as now. Except Ahmedabad and Jamnagar, the party could not cross even the single digit anywhere and it scored a zero in Surat.

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The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came to Gujarat, claiming to be an alternative to both the BJP and the Congress, while the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) ambled in asking what had the Congress done for the Muslims. The Congress dismissed both as B-teams of the BJP and both retorted that it was the former that facilitated BJP’s consecutive victories from 1995 onwards and that they had just arrived.

Not to be left behind, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) too registered three victories in Jamnagar though this was on the strength of the individuals and not by the party’s design per se.

While there may be empirical evidence to substantiate the B-team allegation on Asaduddin Owaisi’s party, AAP indeed emerged as a serious contender.

The AAP scored a zero in five municipal corporations, but Arvind Kejriwal’s dispensation enforced a zero on the Congress in Surat by walking away with as many as 27 seats. This is the home town of Gujarat BJP president and Navsari MP C.R. Paatil.

Right from day one when the party was the first to declare its candidates in January to when it announced its manifesto, which it calls a guarantee card, along with a report card on the issues it had raised in the past, it was clear the party had done its homework well.

The AAP did not suddenly discover Gujarat during the last two months, it had been quietly raising a variety of issues since 2017-2018 in various cities. A key reason for its performance in Surat – it is now the main opposition party in the municipal corporation – was that it exposed as many as 170 scams of varying degrees in the civic body.

In every city, it spoke of hyperlocal nitty-gritty issues with details of lanes and bylanes in its promises, and produced evidence to point to issues it had been raising in the civic bodies in the past.

It isn’t without reason that AAP’s youngest winner in Surat is a 22-year-old woman, who has just started out as an actress in a Gujarati film, Taari Maari Dosti, and has featured in 50-odd Gujarati remix songs. She defeated a sitting BJP corporator by over 12,000 votes in a Purna (West) ward, taking some 23,000 votes.

Congress party office wears a deserted look during counting day of Gujarat Municipal Corporation polls, in Ahmedabad, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Photo: PTI

A key factor in Surat, which again reflects the Congress’s self-goal tendencies, was the disenchantment of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) from the party after it gave a short shrift to its members and serious contenders in distributing party tickets.

This, despite the fact that Hardik Patel was the founding convenor of PAAS and Surat’s Patidar-dominated eastern areas were the epicentre of his Patidar agitation in 2015. As a result, the PAAS threw its lot behind the AAP and the latter ensured that their members get party tickets for the polls. The frustration could be measured by the fact that some PAAS members who got Congress tickets withdrew at the eleventh hour to protest against the “injustice” to the Patels, even with Hardik Patel inside.

This also explains why a bulk of the AAP seats have come from areas like Varachha, Mota Varachha, Katargam, Ashwanikumar and the like with heavy domination of the Patidars from Saurashtra region.

The AIMIM, which contested on 21 Congress-controlled constituencies, managed eight seats from two municipal wards of Jamalpur and Maktampura, both Congress strongholds.

The party spoke of being the new messiah for the Muslims but scarcely raised a single issue for the community after coming into Gujarat about three months ago.

Any Muslim in Gujarat would tell you that the word itself was adequate to consolidate the Hindu vote in an auto-pilot mode, and this has been politically time-tested. And here was a party which has the M-word ingrained in its name.

And the consolidation on the other side could happen just by the sheer presence of a tall, broad-shouldered bearded man without moustaches, who addressed those masses who can’t speak neither Hindi nor Gujarati properly, in chaste Urdu. Claiming to become a voice of the Muslims in Gujarat, the AIMIM contested only on 21 seats in all six municipal corporations put together. It could only partly complete its task of spoiling whatever is left of the Congress, though the loss of even eight seats was indeed damaging for the Congress party.

In contrast, the AAP contested on 470 seats out of 576 in Gujarat and so was not helping the BJP. In any case, they have come into the space liberally ceded by the Congress party.

The malaise in the Congress in Gujarat runs deep, and is visible from how the party micro-manages its state leadership with the chaos at the top percolating to the bottom.

Also read: Congress Adopting ‘Chhattisgarh Model’ to Regain Power in Assam

Two instances are sufficient.

One, the Gujarat Congress has a president, Amit Chavda, and a leader of the opposition, Paresh Dhanani. They should have quit after every major election, but they have been retained. Later, there was a plan to replace both which had been put off after the local body elections.

This isn’t something unusual, but what is sure is that the Congress leadership chose to have young Turk Hardik Patel as a “working president” of the party, at first arousing hopes of a generational shift. But Chavda is still there. “We have two presidents in Gujarat, one is officially called working president, the other is officially called president – should I assume the other is a sleeping president?” asked a frustrated middle-rung Congress leader, on the condition anonymity.

Already, as was expected, Hardik’s promotion of sorts didn’t go down well with the seniors – all of whom are perennially chief ministerial candidates, though they may not be able to win their own assembly seat. One reason this was bound to happen was that the central leadership pitchforked Hardik into this position without making any other organisational changes and reallocations. However, Patel wasn’t given any work or responsibilities except the rallies and the meetings he addressed on his own initiative.

The luckier ones, who are smarter too, like Shaktisinh Gohil, bagged a Rajya Sabha seat and national responsibilities. Those who could not, like former Union minister Bharatsinh Solanki, muscled his way into getting some 34 Thakore community members tickets to contest the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation elections though this OBC caste has a minuscule presence in the city.

The second instance: The Congress party in Gujarat could not rustle up a single strong public agitation over any key issue, though there was no dearth of issues. The Gujarat government’s shoddy handling of the COVID-19 crisis was openly criticised in all major cities and the high court lampooned the government every other day for its poor health governance. Right from woefully inadequate testing to the government’s inability to tackle the private school managements over lockdown fees, to gaps in distribution of rations to the poor.

The party, at best, issued press statements that were pushed into various corners by the mainstream media, or just tweeted various comments.

Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani (though he is an independent MLA) jointly convened a press conference and made serious allegations – backed by evidence – of malpractices in the implementation of the NREGA during the lockdown period, when this scheme was the only hope for lakhs of poor people. The Congress party as an organisation never took it up as a campaign and the issue fizzled out.

Not to speak of the bolts from the blue like Congress leader Rahul Gandhi saying in Assam, without doing any homework, that the workers were exploited while Gujarati tea traders controlled tea gardens there. And that they would be paid better from the pockets of the Gujarati tea traders if the Congress came to power. According to industry sources, Gujarati tea traders don’t control tea gardens in Assam.

Darshan Desai is Editor, Development News Network, Gujarat, and can be reached at [email protected].