Gujarat election results: Congress ran like Milkha Singh, winning Gujarati hearts if not the medal
In some ways, the electorate gave both contestants reasons to celebrate: the BJP more yet less; the Congress less yet more!opinion Updated: Dec 19, 2017 07:50 IST
For the fifth time on the trot since 1998, it is, despite the depleted numbers, a respectable victory for the BJP in Gujarat. For the Congress, the outcome is honourable, fought as it did so gallantly on its rival’s Hindutva turf.
It couldn’t capture it — but shook it strong enough to make the winner look the runner up.
In some ways, the electorate gave both contestants reasons to celebrate: the BJP more yet less; the Congress less yet more! Compliments are indeed due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who was once again his party’s one-man battalion – for having helped it keep power. Defusing palpable anti-incumbency against his colleagues who ran Gujarat post-2014, he spearheaded the BJP to a simple majority in the 182-member House.
For Rahul Gandhi, who strategised for and led from the front the Congress charge, the results are cause for satisfaction and introspection. The issues he raised fetched him resonance which translated to unprecedented acceptance of his leadership.
He struck a chord with eclectic sections of Gujarati voters who aren’t easy to please. But he fell short of delivering the “zabardast” (resounding) outcome he had expected on the strength of proximate and direct partnerships with the caste trinity of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mewani.
One can declare the results as the Congress’s best chance squandered again. But that’ll be a tad unfair. The party’s performance is impressive, given the near-derelict state of its organisational machinery pitted against the humongous BJP in its very citadel. It lacked committed cadres, as also a robust chief ministerial option for the electorate.
Yet it ran like Milkha Singh, deserving applause for the spirited effort, if not the medal it missed.
In making its mighty rival scurry for cover in its pocket borough of over two decades, Rahul has managed a start he so direly needed as Congress president. The tally he mopped as the party’s chief campaigner was secured against the oft-tested Modi charisma that was a lethal mix of parochial emotion and religious nationalism.
The PM’s final thrust before the second phase pulled it off for the BJP in Ahmedabad and Vadodara where subliminal communalism is a constant waiting to be stoked. The Congress’s top leaders at the local level were sons of former chief ministers without their ancestral mass base: Bharat Solanki, Siddhartha Patel and Tushar Chaudhary. Pragmatic urban voters did not perceive them or the moribund opposition as a substitute, especially with the BJP being in power at the Centre under Modi—its Mr Teflon.
So how will the results, including the Congress’s defeat in Himachal play out at the national level? The BJP will do well to take a closer look at its policies and their implementation. Demonetisation and shoddy enforcement of goods and services tax had badly hit small businesses in quasi urban centers — where agrarian distress is next door and unemployment a burning issue.
There was evidence of the tight job market weakening Modi’s hold on young voters across castes. They used to be his self-propelled engines in the past that turned adversarial in these elections. Hardik’s rebellion mirrored that change.
The Patidar leader’s long-term utility for the Congress is enhanced by the BJP’s consistent bid to play down his appeal in the influential community. Even after results, the saffron party said it was done in by “kapaas (cotton farmers), not by (Hardik’s quota outfit) PAAS.”
Be that as it may, Rahul will be better off co-opting Hardik and the other two caste icons — Jignesh and Alpesh who have made it to the new assembly from North Gujarat. They all have political timbre to become leaders of consequence in the Congress’s ongoing generational shift.
For instance, Jignesh is educated and is a good speaker like the other two. He can be the Congress’s pan-India answer to Mayawati whose appeal is diminishing.
In immediate terms, the new chief has to strengthen the party in states where polls are due next year: Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The drubbing the Congress got in these provinces took the fight out of it. Consequently, the 2014 general elections saw it being reduced to a rump in the Lok Sabha.
Rahul’s test is in building on the Congress’s recovery in Gujarat – as the principal Opposition in Parliament and the national alternative on the ground. He shouldn’t, towards that end, be shy of reaching out to the majority community the way he did it in Gujarat. For their goodwill is crucial for safeguarding the interest of minorities.