Why the Congress couldn’t win Gujarat and what the BJP needs to do now
The absence of strategists of the calibre of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in the Congress may mean that Rahul Gandhi won’t be able to hold on to the limited gains he has made in this election. But the BJP cannot rest on its laurels if Prime Minister Modi is to hold on to his unbroken record of winning all assembly and a majority of Lok Sabha seats since 1995.opinion Updated: Dec 20, 2017 12:57 IST
A number of TV commentators on Monday night accused the Congress of “outsourcing” its poll mobilisation in Gujarat and consequently failing to clinch a victory despite 22 years of BJP rule. Although “outsourcing” is an unhappy term, there is some substance in what they wanted to convey, namely, the national party’s dependence on three young community leaders in the state. Implied in this was the reality that the Congress had no acceptable or popular face in Gujarat and hence could only hope that the troika of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani would not only herd crowds to Rahul Gandhi’s rallies but also drive people to the booths on polling day. How far the Congress’s hopes materialised is difficult to guess but the fact that the BJP’s tally was significantly pushed down while the Congress’s went up, suggests that the tie-up was not a disaster unlike say, the alliance with the Samajwadi Party in UP or the CPI(M) in West Bengal.
But it was probably a flawed idea to coalesce almost informally with three loosely organised caste groupings. None of the three leaders had a party tagged to their name and hence could not ensure that their supporters were herded to polling booths. Even Hardik Patel, the most popular face among the three, appealed to his Patidar followers merely to vote out the BJP. For the Congress, the strategy could have worked had they campaigned together, presenting a united political front and, therefore, provided a clear choice to the electorate. It appears that Hardik Patel did not risk antagonising those sections of his community which traditionally voted BJP and thus his appeal to them was, in effect, rather vague. Alpesh Thakor actually joined the Congress but it is doubtful how much he could deliver as OBCs are a fractured lot, scattered all over the state and Thakor is yet to emerge as their undisputed leader.
The Left-leaning Jignesh Mevani had an easier task, considering that scheduled castes have always voted mostly for the Congress. It is possible, however, that helped by the Una outrage, he successfully thwarted the Dalits’ drift towards the BJP which was most pronounced in the last UP assembly elections. This drift was a fall out of the BJP’s, particularly, its president Amit Shah’s aggressive drive to woo the scheduled castes all over the country which has yielded dividends for the party in varying degrees.
The absence of strategists of the calibre of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in the Congress may mean that Rahul Gandhi won’t be able to hold on to the limited gains he has made in this election. Clearly all the three community leaders are hesitant to fully embrace the Congress and may not go beyond a tentative hug. The extent to which Hardik Patel went to contradict reports that he had met Rahul Gandhi in a Ahmedabad hotel reinforces this assessment.
In a sense, this is not the fault of the Congress and its newly-elected president. The party lacks a credible local leadership, which was a major reason for its inability to pip the BJP to the post. As any keen observer of the way politics works in India would aver, it is important for leaders of different parties to establish a personal rapport as a prelude to any long-term understanding. The Congress in Gujarat lacks leaders of the necessary stature to take a relationship with other groups forward. But in case Rahul Gandhi can apply his mind to overcoming this deficiency and promote a credible local leadership, it would help both the party’s own standing and also cement equations with such quasi-political groups. That could enable the Congress to pose a very serious challenge to the BJP in 2019.
But that alone will not help. As Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley were at pains to emphasise on Tuesday evening, the BJP’s vote share actually went up this time although it won fewer seats than in 2012. A 7% gap in a two-party scenario is enough to spell a clear victory for one with the larger share even if quirks of the first-past-the-post system result in that party’s failure to garner a corresponding number of seats. So the BJP cannot rest on its laurels if Prime Minister Modi is to hold on to his unbroken record of winning all assembly and a majority of Lok Sabha seats since 1995.
This time, the BJP made significant inroads into the Schedule Tribe votes, hitherto a virtual monopoly of the Congress. The combined effect of the BJP’s outreach and the consistent work of the RSS’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram finally delivered the ST votes that had always eluded the BJP’s kitty. That explains the reason for the party’s sixth triumph in a row despite farmer discontent and traders’ unrest over certain economic reforms of the central government.
While the BJP is certain to tweak its policies to win over disgruntled sections and also deploy its large cadre base for this task, a reinvigorated Congress will go all out sensing a chance to finally humble the BJP’s in its so far impregnable fortress.
Chandan Mitra is editor of The Pioneer and has been two-time Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP
The views expressed are personal