Ahmedabad: In spite of its defeat, the Congress Party has managed to salvage some honour with an improved performance in Gujarat. Its defeat in Himachal Pradesh though will make its rival, the BJP, stand taller – while the Congress succumbed to anti-incumbency in Himachal, the BJP still managed to hold its fort with a comfortable margin in Gujarat to register the sixth straight win in the state.
For the newly anointed Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, it has been his baptism with fire. But despite the loss in Himachal, his efforts in Gujarat have earned him much respect as a tireless worker despite being derided by his opponents.
This has been the best performance by the Congress ever since the BJP annexed power in Gandhinagar in 1995. On Monday morning, when trends had started coming, in fact the Congress had almost given a shock to the BJP by racing ahead of the latter initially. Celebrations too had started at the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee but that was short lived. The message from Gujarat for the Congress workers though would be positive and would be expected to motivate them further when the party faces elections in Karnataka and four north-eastern states – Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura, next year. Of these five states, Congress rules in Karnataka, Meghalaya and Mizoram and faces a challenging task of retaining these states. Rahul’s real challenge will be in these states where he would be required to provide leadership in face of the anti-incumbency factor as well as a resurgent BJP which now rules in 14 states of the country as against the Congress’ four!
What seems to be more daunting is the fact that more than anything else, the Congress’s improvement in Gujarat seems largely because of the incumbency factor than any of its ploys deployed. The Congress ploy to leverage the growing clout of the triad of Patel quota leader Hardik Patel, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor could fetch it success only in limited pockets. The BJP continued to have an upper hand in the tribal seats of South Gujarat and Surat, where Patels had a significant say. However, to an extent in Patel’s backyard in Saurashtra, the Congress has done marginally better in the elections this time, but still in Rajkot district – the nerve centre of Patel politics, the Hardik magic did not work.
While Alpesh, contesting on a Congress ticket, won from Radhanpur, and Jignesh too won as an Independent from Vadgam with the Congress’ support, the shocker has come from within the Congress’ own rank and file. Its top three leaders, Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhwadia, Siddharth Patel have lost the elections and their defeat requires some introspection by the Congress. Already there was much dissent within the party over the issue of ‘imported’ candidates (read Jignesh and Alpesh).
Even Rahul’s ploy to exploit GST and demonetization in the Commercial hub of Surat failed to fetch the desired result as the voters have still favoured the BJP there. Hence, for the new Congress president, Rahul, he still seems to have a long way to go for matching the BJP’s tactical prowess.
Despite facing a visible anti-incumbency in Gujarat, the way the BJP managed to control it makes it emerge even more formidable as a party. It also speaks volumes of the political acumen of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. Throughout the campaigning period, the duo kept their ear to the ground and did not hesitate from mid-term course correction. For example Modi effectively neutralized the Congress campaign against the GST by relaxing certain GST provisions. Besides, it went all out attacking Rahul for his soft-Hindutva and temple hopping and even called the Congress a BJP ‘clone’ to send signals to the voters that Hindutva was clearly a BJP prerogative and that the Congress was only an imposter.
Keeping with the trend, the BJP has also registered impressive gains in the urban areas of Gujarat. However, what would trouble the Modi-Shah duo is that the party could not score much in the rural belt – a constituency that it had ceded to the Congress in the Panchayat elections of 2015. This is a serious concern considering the farmers’ problems across the country now snowballing into a major crisis.
Already Gandhian activist Anna Hazare has announced launching a mass movement from New Delhi’s Ram Leela ground on 23rd March next year to highlight the farmers’ problems. Now the failure of the BJP to influence voters in the rural areas of Gujarat further puts Modi’s Gujarat Model of Governance under scrutiny in rural areas of his own state. As the BJP this time has got lesser seats than 2012 elections in Gujarat, this does reflect on the vulnerability of Modi’s much talked about ‘Gujarat Model’. The earlier the BJP resolves the issue of agrarian crisis, the better it is for the party’s better prospects in the 2019 general elections. As for Rahul, he does have a task in hand to check the BJP juggernaut from rolling on. Gujarat could well be the beginning but can he forget Himachal?
*The writer is a senior journalist