The Gujarat election campaign had plenty of positives for the Congress as it prepares for key Assembly elections in 2018.
Abdul Hafiz Lakhani | Caravan Daily
AHMEDABAD — The prestigious battle for PM Modi and BJP’s National President Amit Shah in Gujarat will be a morale booster for the saffron brigade. The nail-biting counting session eventually saw the BJP win 99 seats in the 182-member assembly — 16 less than their figure in 2012. The Congress gained 19 seats to reach 80. It is encouraging sign for Congress in view of approaching 2019 election and some state Assembly election to be held in 2018.
Gujarat Assembly election was definitely a lesson for the grand old party and its new President Rahul Gandhi. The Congress managed to make inroads in the BJP’s citadel, riding on the support of three local icons: Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. But, the party failed to convince the urban electorates in its favor, despite the anti-incumbency wave and rising discontent among both rural and urban electorates.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke in Gujarati and connected well with the masses, Rahul Gandhi – the party’s star campaigner – did face the language handicap. Rahul, of course, cannot learn Gujarati or for that matter any other regional language. The problem is that the Congress did not have a leader in Gujarat with a pan-state appeal. For a party which has a 38.9 per cent vote share in Gujarat, it cannot blame anyone but itself for not nurturing a strong leader or leaders over the years. The party faces a similar challenge in states like West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu.
Despite BJP’s best efforts it could not polarise the elections on religious lines. And the big reason for that is the division in the Hindu community, like the disenchantment among the Patidars and the Dalits. On many seats, which the BJP managed to win by a slim margin, parties like the BSP and the NCP could have made a difference. The Congress may have narrowed down the difference, but BJP still remains invincible. The difference – from a 2019 general elections point of view – would be alliances, credible ones to challenge the BJP hegemony.
The spirited campaign that Rahul Gandhi and the party waged in Gujarat was refreshing for the grand old party which has to fight several bipolar state elections in the run-up to the general elections in 2019. The Congress will be up against the BJP in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh next year. The respectable number of seats the party won in Gujarat and the fact that it made the BJP sweat should boost the Congress morale and is a big lesson for it. The message is clear. A well-oiled and focused campaign can make a difference. But more than that, the party has to show determination to fight.
Rahul Gandhi proved he was a force to reckon with but the Congress sorely missed a chief ministerial candidate. The vacuum in the state leadership was certainly a factor in its defeat, given that the BJP had Chief Minister Vijay Rupani in its ranks apart from banking on Narendra Modi for star power.
Former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot was the only other visible Congress face during the campaign. While Gehlot and Gandhi helped marshal the party’s footsoldiers, neither of them were the ‘sons of the soil’. Going forward, Rahul Gandhi will have to focus on cultivating state leadership and strengthening grassroots support.
Breaking from tradition, the Congress did not focus on the Muslim vote during the campaign. However, the party won several Muslim-dominated seats and could perhaps have invested more in building its voter base among the community, which constitutes a tenth of the state’s population. In Gujarat, Congress blunted Hindutva’s edge by maintaining a distance from them and was able to negate Modi’s and thereby BJP’s success formula.
With 77 seats in its kitty and the support of three candidates including popular Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani (who is a symbol of hope for the marginalised communities), Congress has its task cut out to prove its caliber and raise the people-centric issues in the assembly. It can even drive the tide in its favour in the general elections scheduled for 2019. It’s perhaps time that the Rahul-led party launched a country-wide campaign against the BJP’s communal politics, empty rhetoric and the growing number of hate crimes to subdue it in the next general elections.
The Congress should frame a poll strategy revolving around the real issues people face – such as the crumbling healthcare system, the near absence of quality education, growing unemployment and jobless economic growth. The party should not waste time in proving that it is no less of a Hindu party (compared to the BJP), as it did by making several temple visits in poll-bound Gujarat. Rather it should win the trust of the people on the performance plank and by framing people-centric policies.
(Abdul Hafiz Lakhani is a senior journalist based in Ahmedabad. He is editor of Gujarat Siyasat)