The Gujarat Assembly election campaign is still not heating up effectively. In creeping cold weather, both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are sweating it out over development, Narendra Modi’s leadership, unemployment, GST, and Gujarat’s asmita (ethos).
Yet, these efforts don’t seem to have yielded a decisive momentum for or against any party. At the same time, if the BJP appears seriously perturbed by the resurgence of the Congress in the state’s politics, it is evidently indicative of a lot of subterranean heat in Gujarat’s ongoing poll campaign.
Levelling the Playing Field?
Having touched a historic rock bottom of 33 percent vote share and zero seats from the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha election (getting a proportionate lead only in about 13 Assembly segments out of 182), the Congress seemed the most unattractive choice to bet on just three months ago, particularly after the BJP poached on its pugnacious Opposition leader, Shankarsinh Vaghela, and 13 MLAs.
It is remarkable that from being a rank underdog, the Congress today finds itself projected by some opinion polls as an equal player in Saurashtra and North Gujarat regions vis-à-vis the BJP – less due to its original initiatives but more due to the GST-related snags and the unrelenting discontent of the Patidars, OBCs, and Dalits, spearheaded by Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore, and Jignesh Mevani respectively.
Going further, over the next three weeks, the most riveting question for political observers is:
Does the Congress have the organisational wherewithal to make the Gujarat election a real contest rather than a one-sided game as in the past?
How the Congress Let the BJP Rise
The ideological, political, and organisational hegemony of the BJP in Gujarat is hardly news for anyone. The BJP in Gujarat is what the Left Front was in West Bengal from 1977 to 2011.
Modi is to Gujarat what Vladimir Putin is to Russia today. Shaking the foundation of this carefully constructed hegemonic structure will require the Congress to do much more than just composing punchy tweets, folding hands at popular temples, or essaying frenetic, last-minute, internally inconsistent caste pacts.
Failure to aggressively expose the BJP’s governance failures during the last five years and cultivate a credible state-level leader is the biggest handicap for the Congress in its quest to return to power in Gujarat. Successfully capitalising on popular discontent against a ruling party needs an opposition face people can identify with and in whom they can place their faith.
Halting the BJP’s juggernaut in states requires an Amarinder Singh, a Mamata Banerjee, or an Arvind Kejriwal. The BJP does not need such a state-level face in Gujarat as Modi is the face of Gujarat for the party.
The Congress Needs More Foot Soldiers
“Hu Vikas Chhu, Hu Chhu Gujarat” (I am development, I am Gujarat) is the slogan on omnipresent Modi banners in Gujarat today. Despite his best efforts to connect with one and all, Rahul Gandhi is unlikely to pose a threat to Modi’s towering, larger-than-life persona.
Popular electoral campaigns are conducted more through grassroots mobilisation by charged-up party cadres and para-political civil society organisations, and less by public rallies.
A major drawback for the Congress is its very fragile organisational set-up and near-absence from the civil society space. Having ruled Gujarat for over two decades and using government resources for political expansion, the BJP has made it very unattractive for the state’s youth to join the Congress – a problem that has been further compounded by the Congress’ disinterest in cultivating a mass leader.
The Congress is seriously deprived of foot soldiers to manage the ‘mahollas’ and polling booths.
Likewise, it is not present in trade unions, farmers’ organisations, academia, milk cooperatives, business bodies, professional organisations, and popular religious sects and centres like Swaminarayan, Khodal Dham or Umiya Mata.
What Helped Boost BJP’s Gujarat Electoral Base?
Systematic ideological and organisational work, mainly by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in major civil society sectors has created a solid electoral base for the BJP in Gujarat.
Mobilised and nursed by veteran leaders like Jhinabhai Darji and Amarsinh Chaudhari in the 1970s and the 1980s, the tribal communities of Gujarat were strong backers of the Congress till 2002.
There are more tribals in Gujarat than the Patidars. Excessive strategic investment in attracting the followers of Hardik Patel by the Congress for a come-back plan has caused underestimation of re-engaging with about 26 Adivasi-dominated constituencies in Dahod, Panchmahal, Chhota Udepur, Bharuch, Navsari, and Dang districts.
These are areas in which the RSS has managed to make deep inroads, through its network of Ekal Vidyalayas and Vanvasi Kalyan Parishads, supplemented by the state government’s ‘Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana’ launched in 2007, with a huge budget allocation that adds up to about 15 percent of the state budget.
Will David Defeat Goliath?
Pitted against the formidable BJP, the Congress needs to tighten all small screws and bolts to avert any division of anti-BJP votes. If the Congress succeeds in stopping its UPA partner, the Nationalist Congress Party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, from playing spoiler, it will increase its chances of winning in about 40 seats (where the vote difference between the BJP and the Congress was only a few thousand in the 2012 elections).
The BSP and the NCP secured 1.3 and 1 percent votes respectively in the 2014 election. Ultimate election victories are clinched by positive campaigns rather than merely by criticism of ruling parties, howsoever honest such criticism may sound.
Gujarat’s electorate is looking for positive policy alternatives that spell out how more jobs as well as better education, social welfare, healthcare and public services will be delivered by the Congress and why people should give it an opportunity to rule again.
It is certainly possible for the Congress to make a comeback in Gujarat politics through proactive and positive alternative policy advocacy, combined with a multi-pronged social mobilisation strategy.
Only time will tell whether David will defeat Goliath in Gujarat next month.
(The writer is a professor of political science at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara. He tweets at @Amit_Dholakia. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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