Congress candidate Madhusudhan Mistri is fighting not one but two Narendra Modis — one is the BJP candidate and prime ministerial nominee and the other, the larger-than-life perception of Modi the strongman.
Mistri is locked in a straight electoral battle with the first. Neither he nor the Congress quite figured out the contest against the second. On the eve of the voting day here, it seems the Congress has all but given up even attempting a contest with the larger-than-life cult of Modi.
“The people of Vadodara know us. They are aware of the party’s excellent track record of the past 10 years and I believe there’s a silent underground wave in our favour,” Mistri told HT. He was not being facetious. He is being himself: low-key, self-effacing, non-glamourous, non-belligerent and without a professional public relations build-up.
The Congress would have done better with a more pugnacious candidate against Modi, party leaders said, on condition of anonymity. Mistri climbed up poles to tear Modi’s posters, but even he may be surprised by an upset win.
Vadodara was one of the 13 constituencies where party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s idea of primaries was operationalised. It yielded, ironically, a Narendra. Narendra Ravat. But the high command mandated Mistri to take on Narendra Modi.
Ravat, in his early 40s, is an engineer from the MS University here, hails from Palanpur and delights in a tough battle. “If the BJP thinks winning Vadodara is a cakewalk, they’re wrong,” he told HT. “They won’t get what they want.”
The BJP desires a record margin of 5 lakh and above for Modi. The Congress had bagged close to 3 lakh votes in the 2009 general elections. With a consolidation of the Muslim vote this time, Congress leaders here expect to get more.
But a senior party leader, who had watched Ravat’s rise with some envy, said, “What we have done isn’t enough at all. The party started way too late and, as usual, is beset with internal rivalries.”
Besides, Mistri’s non-connect with voters, especially the young urban voters, is in stark contrast to his rival’s very personal and over-the-top approach. He does not stir and stoke the Gujarati ‘asmita’ the way Modi is wont to.
In the event, the Congress campaign looks the loser’s campaign: it’s there but it’s not making a difference to the political discourse in this once-cosmopolitan cultural city that has turned saffron.
It’s a measure of the Congress’ fight, or non-fight, that it does not seriously figure in the BJP’s discussions here. With BJP MLAs in all seven assembly constituencies and victory margins of 30,000 to 57,000 votes in each in the 2012 assembly election, Modi’s machinery is sitting smug.
The challenger is not really a challenge — not on electoral turf and certainly not in the perception battle.