2019 begins in Gujarat; A Congress resurgence?

Last Updated: Tue, Oct 17, 2017 11:01 hrs
Indian National Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi waves to supporters at Khatraj village near Ahmedabad

Addressing a massive crowd of party workers in Bhat, Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi focused on development and his attacks on the Congress stating that dynasty politics are bound to fail. Speaking of the party leader and the strong showing in the Uttar Pradesh elections, he said Amit Shah was the man of the match in UP. He’s surely hoping that form can be replicated in Gujarat. Accusing the Congress of spreading lies on GST, he criticized the opposition of only talking about negatives and not offering a plan of their own.

Amit Shah serving as the warm up act took aim at the Congress not being able to get a collectorate office made in Amethi while questioning the work of the BJP in Gujarat. The speech by both men consisted of the greatest hits and in this instance was very much preaching to the choir, but firing up the party faithful could be the beginning of a winning strategy.

The Prime Minister clearly loves his state, visiting it multiple times this year. This time it will be to mark the end of the BJP’s Gaurav Yatra. The 15-day yatra covered 149 of the state’s 182 constituencies. The BJP has had a 22 year reign in Gujarat; could the party be getting nervous?

The chances of them relinquishing the state are close to zero, but can the Congress capitalize on an economy that hasn’t grown as much as the BJP would have liked and on recent criticisms over the BJP’s economic policies such as demonetization and GST.

The Hindustan Times editorial states that the Congress has shown signs of revival but many challenges remain ahead of 2019 –

“Rahul Gandhi’s United States tour revealed a relatively neglected, thoughtful and focused side of him to audiences. He was seen as candid about the failures of the Congress, conscious of the challenges before India and aware of the centrality of economic growth and job creation”.

“But beyond the individual, the Congress has also woken up to the social media game, and for the first time in years, is creating counter narratives on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp. Remember, it was on social media that the BJP was able to carve out a distinct space in the run up to the 2014 general polls”.

“This is however not to suggest that the Opposition is back, for the Congress has real challenges to overcome. the Congress organization is weak even as the BJP has created among the most formidable election machines any party has had so far; the Congress has not been able to create a younger generation of leaders from backward communities, the OBC groups in particular, which the BJP is systematically wooing”.

Some events that have taken place in the state might warrant extra attention from the BJP cadre and the leadership. There was a rally by textile workers at Surat in July, who were unhappy over GST, Ahmed Patel winning narrowly and it will be interesting to watch if the recent controversy over Amit Shah’s son has any penetration or weight with voters.

Traders are angry over GST as a recent revision does not cover those with an annual turnover of Rs 1.50 crore or less, thereby leaving out many. Perhaps some of the recent announcements like the bullet train project might not have captured the imagination of the base support; however, one can count on the party announcing policy measures squarely aimed at easing any discomfort.

Giles Verniers, an assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University, in a column for the Indian Express highlights the differences in strategy between the BJP and Congress for Gujarat –

“In Gujarat, the BJP has been in power since 1995…no regional party has succeeded in winning more than one or, at the most, two terms in Gujarat. Most attempts to create regional parties were short-lived. In fact, most non-Congress and non-BJP governments were led by leaders who defected from national parties”.

“Is this because there is no appetite for regionalism amongst Gujarati voters? Evidence from a post-poll survey conducted in 2004 by Lokniti-CSDS points to the contrary. Almost 60 per cent of Gujarati respondents said that they completely or somewhat agreed with the statement that “compared to national parties, regional/local parties can provide better government in states”.

“…since the mid-1990s, the BJP has been able to embody an increasingly dominant form of regional identity, a role performed by regional parties in states where national parties have declined”.

Giles argues that in the 2012 elections, the respective state units were the main players and the Congress unit was undercut and/or sidelined by the top leadership and made the contest between two people – Modi and Gandhis.

“The BJP, however, has considerable advantages by virtue of power at the Centre and the PM’s appeal. It seems unlikely that a strategy consisting of pitting a national leader in quest of credibility against a popular PM hailing from Gujarat and belonging to a party that has succeeded in presenting itself as the embodiment of a dominant version of Gujarat’s regional identity, will pay off”.

The Gandhi now in the spotlight is Rahul. As he is expected to take over as the leader of the party, he had his Navsarjan Yatra, which exceeded expectations and received a good response. The BJP’s tactic seems clear in they make him the boogeyman, the people should be wary of him and the party he is shortly expected to lead.

There are challenges. Winning a state like Gujarat requires strong local leadership, something the Congress lacks. They Congress does not want another episode of MLA’s and party workers feeling disgruntled and leaving for the other side at a crucial time like now.

The Times of India editorial states that the 2019 cycle has begun in earnest with Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat and Amit Shah in Amethi –

“Rahul, as part of his Navsarjan Yatra, has been travelling through BJP-ruled Gujarat and questioning the state’s much vaunted development model that has looked tattered in recent times. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi moved to the Centre, the state government has experienced leadership troubles. Add to this an economic slowdown and jobs crisis”.

“While Rahul’s challenge in Modi’s home state may be slight, BJP has nevertheless responded with its customary scorched earth policy as Shah, Union minister Smriti Irani and UP CM Yogi Adityanath all descended on the Gandhi pocket borough of Amethi”.

“Both Congress and BJP are taking the battle to each other’s backyard to unsettle their opponent. However, nationally, BJP still holds all the cards with powerful electoral machinery and a charismatic Modi”.

The party is taking aim at the BJP’s Hindutva and Rahul showing himself to be a clear contrast to Modi. The Congress may sense some anger against the BJP especially on economic issues. The tale for the Congress in Gujarat can be different only if they have a cohesive campaign, field the right candidates and find the right combination of communities within the state to target.

More columns by Varun Sukumar