Gujarat results deliver gains that the Congress and Rahul Gandhi can build on
While the Gujarat elections result will be seen as a boost, the Congress needs to have more consistent party activities rather than remaining dormant till the next electionanalysis Updated: Dec 18, 2017 16:19 IST
In the brutal world of politics, a victory is a victory and a defeat is a defeat. The fine analysis of vote shifts, margins, the regional variations will matter now -- and matter in the run up to the next election . What really matters is the outcome -- the BJP will form the government in Gandhinagar yet again, and the Congress will remain stuck on the opposition benches for another term.
The Congress was unable to capitalise on deep anger that had built up against the BJP over 22 years of its rule; the addition of Patidar votes to its kitty; the post-Modi deficit in the BJP’s leadership; and the economic disruption. This is cause for introspection.
Yet, given how invincible the BJP had seemed after its UP victory, and given how low the Congress has plummeted since 2014, the Gujarat election has actually had the effect of boosting the party’s morale. This could be with good reason, for in Gujarat, Congress got four key elements of its campaign right -- which it needs to build on in the run up to 2019.
First, this election has marked the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a leader. Either seen as reluctant or inconsistent or incompetent or an object of mockery till now, there are unmistakable signs of evolution. Rahul campaigned consistently across the state; he remained disciplined about his message; he was firm when necessary as we saw in the case of Mani Shankar Aiyar; he made up for the deficit in oratory with sincerity; and he did not make gaffes. He seemed interested in fighting and winning — which voters had not seen so far.
Two, the Congress is finally figuring out a formula to deal with the ‘Hinduisation’ of the polity that has taken place over the past few years. Assiduous and public wooing of the minority vote has only helped the BJP construct its own ‘majority vote’. The Congress recognised that it had to take the battle to the home turf of the rival. Rahul’s temple visits helped in neutralising the image of Congress as an anti-Hindu party. At the same time, the party kept its channels with the Muslims open and gave six tickets to members of the community. While traditional secular critics may feel Congress was betraying its principles by keeping quiet on issues such as the 2002 riots, a political party has to deal with a political reality. And perhaps the future of secular coalitions lies in public wooing of the majority -- to prevent BJP from monopolising the Hindu identity -- and private alliances with the minority.
The Congress may also be finally figuring out its overarching narrative and key demographics. By focusing on rural distress and unemployment, the party seems to have made deeper inroads among farmers and broken the youth’s romance with the BJP. Farmers across the country are restless for a simple reason — the prices for their products are often less than the cost of production. There are no easy policy solutions, but there is ground for the opposition to capitalise on. The BJP government has always failed in creating jobs to the extent it had promised. Many young people who have invested in higher education and are not getting work are unhappy. This can be the Congress’s key class coalition.
Four, the BJP succeeds when it carves out inclusive Hindu social coalitions across castes. When key caste groups get disenchanted, the BJP struggles. The challenge for the Congress has been that the party itself is rather exclusivist and does not have prominent leaders representing caste groups — be it Patels in Gujarat or upper and lower OBCs in key north Indian states. Recognising this, it tied up with Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. Among these, Hardik was key. The Congress needs to seriously work on making its own party structures inclusive, and stitch alliances in the rest of the country.
But the Congress can only build on these four potential openings if it improves the biggest deficit of all — its electoral and organisation capabilities. It cannot fight a cadre-based, well-oiled machine such as the BJP with weak booth-level presence; it has to match the party vis-a-vis resources and media narratives; it needs to have more consistent party activities rather than staying dormant till the next election. The Congress lost Gujarat — but in the defeat, there are lessons it can build on as India heads to 2019.