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Gujarat elections: Does Congress have spokes to outrun the BJP wheel in final lap?

Gujarat elections 2017: Party organisations take over after campaigning. The outcome in Gujarat, in good measure, will be decided by the pace at which party wheels move in the BJP and the Congress.

india Updated: Dec 13, 2017 18:41 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times, Ahmedabad
Gujarat elections 2017,Gujarat elections,Narendra Modi
Crowds at a Congress rally in Gujarat’s Patan last week.(Kunal Patil/HT PHOTO)

A raucous campaign has come to a close in Gujarat. Life-size images on hoardings will now get blurred, the smaller ones emerging in stark relief in what’s the zoom dimension of electoral politics.

Once the generals retreat, foot-soldiers advance to convince, cajole or entice the electorate. Their power to persuade, to convert and translate emotion, so to speak, into the wedlock of vote is influenced by factors that are immediate to people’s daily lives. That’s advantage, the incumbent, unless people are in a retributive mood.

There have been unmissable signs of popular anger over economic distress caused by the Centre and the state government’s much-debated policies. Yet local issues come to the fore as social groups are marshalled, patronage flaunted and pressure mounted through area satraps.

Party organisations take over after the partying time which is the campaign period. The outcome will, in good measure, be decided by the pace at which party wheels move in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.

Rallies and meetings enthuse cadres and committed voters. But the gap between ‘attraction and action’ is filled by spokes serving the hub. Organisationally, the saffron charge bolstered by RSS cadres is manifold stronger. It’s evident particularly in central Gujarat’s Vadodara and Ahmedabad cities the combination swept in the 2012 elections.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi won Vadodara besides Varanasi by a huge margin in 2014. The Maninagar seat he held as the chief minister is in Ahmedabad. His is the personal connect with these cities, especially Vadodara where he worked as a swayamsewak.

Religious binaries the BJP stoked in the campaign find subliminal — and at times perceptible — traction in these urban hubs with a history of communal tensions. Not surprising then that the Congress sought to smother its rival’s invocation of the bitter past through studied soft Hindutva.

Proof of it was Rahul Gandhi’s rounds of temples, diffidence in reaching out to Muslim voters and exclusion of that original secularist, Pandit Nehru, from hoardings, banners and leaflets. Besides Mahatma Gandhi, the party laid claim on legacies of other titans of the freedom movement who move social identities: Sardar Patel, the Patidaar and Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Dalit icon.

Sonia Gandhi’s face was retained in the expediently innovative campaign. But the outgoing party chief whose 2007 maut ka saudagar dart was a constant in the BJP’s and the Prime Minister’s poll rhetoric did not show up in Gujarat this time.

The strategy obviously was to have Rahul bat and score on the wicket the BJP curated over two decades to suit its political idiom. The other element in the self-proclaimed Shiv-bhakt’s scheme to contain religious polarisation was the caste trident of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. Going by crowd turnouts, there was evidence of its success in large parts of Saurashtra and North Gujarat.

Hardik knows Ahmedabad better. He was cautious therefore about his roadshow here despite large participation: “They’ve come, let’s see whether they’d vote.” Like pudding’s proof is in the eating, in elections, it’s more about those who vote than about those standing by and listening!

That is where the BJP is perceived better endowed, what with the resources and cadres at its command to get people to vote. Or to polarise or make them come together through last minute, constituency level ententes. Of particular concern at a seat in Kheda were the activities of some frontal Hindu outfits.

Not that the Congress is totally unprepared. The comparison is in relative terms. For instance, at Rahul’s well-attended meeting in Vadodara’s SavIi, I met Rajesh Griglani, a Facebook friend camping there for more than two months. His task was to put booth-level management in place with an assigned team of party workers.

The model is replicated elsewhere. If not as much in Central Gujarat where Hardik’s pull isn’t strong, in the North, large sections of self-galvanised Patidaars are an enabling factor. The Congress preparedness looks good if one adds to that Alpesh and Jignesh’s OBC-Dalit networks bound by the commonality of socio-economic concerns.

The BJP has set up micro-level challenges by funding Congress renegades and Independents in closely contested seats. These faces with niche sectarian appeals sum up the zoom aspect of poll lineups. For they can be bigger vote movers than the top guns who campaigned.

The final battle consequently is about mobilising voters and containing vote splits on December 14. The party with better ground presence will gain. Unless bread and body issues defy poll-eve machinations—and mollycoddling.

Author tweets @VinodSharmaView

First Published: Dec 13, 2017 17:50 IST