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Gujarat elections: Tracing Congress’ campaign strategy and BJP’s responses

How did Gujarat 2017 move from being an election that was just for the BJP to sweep to becoming an election where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party had to work extraordinarily hard to retain its dominance?

GujaratElection2017 Updated: Dec 13, 2017 07:12 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, Ahmedabad
Gujarat elections,Gujarat polls,Gujarat assembly elections
Supporters during a Congress rally in Dakor, Gujarat.(Reuters File Photo)

When a Congress strategist went to Gujarat in March to assess election prospects, his interlocutors told him that the party had little chance.

As the Gujarat campaign ends, the Congress camp — cautiously — feels it has given the BJP a tough challenge, could even sneak past the majority mark and cause a huge upset. The BJP, however, continues to be confident. At its media centre in Ahmedabad, a senior leader remarked, “All of you are making Rahul Gandhi a leader. Wait till December 18 and he will be back to square one.”

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Irrespective of the outcome, how did Gujarat 2017 move from being an election that was just for the BJP to sweep to becoming an election where it had to work extraordinarily hard to retain its dominance? The answer lies in the campaign strategies adopted by both parties.

The challenge

The Congress relied on the BJP’s vulnerabilities. For one, BJP’s social coalition had fractured with Patidars disenchanted. Hardik Patel was able to draw huge crowds. By allying with him, Congress hoped to ensure anti-BJP votes would not get fractured.

Two, BJP’s economic narrative was stressed. Traders had been hit hard by GST. Many young people who had invested in expensive private education could not find jobs. And farmers were not happy with the prices they were getting. Rahul focused on these three messages.

Rahul Gandhi waves at the crows during a campaign rally at Patan. (Kunal Patil/HT Photo)

Three, Congress capitalised on the post-Modi deficit. Since 2014, BJP had two chief ministers — Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani, both not a patch on the political or administrative skills of the PM. And four, it ran a different campaign. To ensure it was not seen as ‘pro-Muslim’ and ‘anti-Hindu’, Rahul visited temples. At the same time, the party kept up private channels with Muslims and by giving six tickets to Muslims, the same as last time, sent a signal.

Overcoming the test

The BJP had its own set of responses.

To deal with the cracks in its social coalition, BJP adopted three key strategies. One, it worked on Patidar organisations, deployed its Patidar leaders, and gave around 50 tickets to Patidar candidates. Two, it worked on consolidating other castes, particularly the upper castes and OBCs. And three, it sought to wean away a section of its tribal and OBC supporters of Congress.

Two, on the economic question, BJP did a course correction on the GST front. The BJP also highlighted its role in providing industrial peace — and compared it to ‘lawlessness’ under the Congress. It continued to own the achievements of the ‘Gujarat model’ and focused on roads, electricity and water.

A life-size digital cutout of Prime Minister Narendra Modi set up at Sabarmati river front in Ahmedabad. (Kunal Patil/HT File Photo)

Three, it made the election about Modi — to deflect attention from the post Modi deficit. With the PM himself campaigning relentlessly, Gujaratis were basically being asked to make a choice: Do you trust Modi or not? Will you let him down, when he is protecting your interests in Delhi? Doesn’t he represent Gujarat’s honour? Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comment helped the party personalise the campaign around the PM even more starkly. Four, the BJP relied on making this a a Hindu-Muslim election. It made fun of Rahul’s temple visits. It picked on the controversy around his name in the non-Hindu register at Somnath temple to cast aspersions on his faith. It used Kapil Sibal’s intervention in the Ayodhya case to cast Congress as a party against the construction of the temple. And the PM suggested a joint Pakistan-Congress plot to defeat BJP in Gujarat. All of this was meant to energise the base, and construct a majority Hindu vote.

And finally, recognising that many seats had witnessed close contests last time, BJP focused on minute booth-level mobilisation; and put up independent candidates to cut off votes of the rival.

It has been a tough battle. Which campaign will prevail will be known on December 18.

First Published: Dec 13, 2017 07:11 IST