Ahmedabad: If Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken upon himself the role to lead the BJP in the December 2017 assembly elections, the Congress has deployed its national Vice President Rahul Gandhi to win the elections in the state where it has been out of power since 1995. And Rahul Gandhi is not leaving anything to chance because the Congress feels that a victory in Gujarat might change the political atmosphere in the rest of the country and enable the Congress to return to power at the Centre as well in 2019.
Rahul Gandhi, who was dubbed derisively as 'Pappu' or an immature person politically by Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections is, proving more than a match for Modi in 2017. The Congress (which suffered a severe setback during the Rajya Sabha elections in August this year as one of its senior leaders-Shankersinh Vaghela-left the party with 13 other MLAs reportedly under pressure from the BJP - he is facing cases registered against him by CBI in sale of land belonging to closed textile mills when he was textile minister under UPA rule ) so as to defeat the Congress RS nominee Ahmed Patel) seems to have emerged stronger. Though Ahmed Patel managed to score victory with the support of the lone JDU MLA Chhotubhai Vasava, the development sent a message that the party needs to take the ensuing assembly elections seriously and not to leave everything for the state leaders alone. If Congress leaders are to be believed, Vaghela's exit from the party has ended factionalism within the organization that always came in the way of selecting candidates on merit. Vaghela always brought pressure on the leadership to field candidates of his own choice irrespective of merit, and that harmed the party. He was not manageable even for the high command.
However, the effect of the August rebellion waned immediately, with Rahul Gandhi taking out 'Navsarjan Gujarat Yatra'(Reviving Gujarat) for six days in two phases between September 25-27 and October 10-12. Prior to that Rahul Gandhi had conducted 'Samvad''-an open question-answer session on September 6 in Ahmedabad in which he had discussed what will be party's electoral agenda. That was a big success.
When Rahul Gandhi embarked on his three-day yatra from temple town of Dwarika on September 25, nobody had expected that it would generate the response it did. He got a tremendous response wherever he went in Saurashtra and Central Gujarat regions. He is scheduled to take out another yatra in South Gujarat between November 1-3 and will also cover the North Gujarat region subsequently. Rahul Gandhi travelled in an air-conditioned bus bearing the slogan-'Yuva Rozgar, Khedut Adhikar''(Jobs to Youths, Rights to Farmers), addressing the two important segments in rural areas. All along the yatra, he talked of unemployment among youths, minimum support price(MSP) for agriculture produce, corruption, agriculture loan, inflation, commercialisation of education and costly health services affecting people across caste and communities. By raising these issues, Rahul Gandhi scored over BJP and shifted the debate from emotional issues raised earlier by BJP to the agenda based on real issues. The assessment of the Congress leaders is that there is much anger against the state BJP government on these issues and if the party executes its campaign effectively, fields the right candidates and builds the perfect caste and community combinations, the Congress can come to power in the December elections. The entire strategy has been crafted by AICC general secretary and party's Gujarat affairs in-charge Ashok Gehlot who is camping in the state for the last three and half months.
Rahul Gandhi, who began his first phase of the yatra during Navratri, state's biggest religious festival, also visited Gujarat's biggest temples, thus challenging BJP on its aggressive Hindutva. While BJP leaders always talked of 'Congress-Mukt Bharat', Rahul Gandhi said he was not in favour of 'BJP mukt bharat'. He said he wanted BJP to exist, indicating he was ready to tolerate dissent, criticism and also accommodate other ideologies. This earned him accolades from the state's intelligentsia. At the same time, Rahul Gandhi purposefully chose to attack RSS which was not criticsed by any of the Congress leaders earlier. At Rajkot, the nerve-centre of RSS, Rahul Gandhi compared it with the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and at Nadiad, the birth place of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel he said that RSS discriminated against women as the RSS does not allow women in its 'shakhas'. Congress leaders say that Rahul Gandhi chose to attack the RSS because it is not possible to defeat the BJP and play secular and liberal politics without attacking and sidelining the RSS that has fathered BJP and is known for encouraging narrow Hindutva communal politics in the country. Though BJP leaders rose in defence of RSS and tried to ridicule Rahul Gandhi, they could not come up with any solid point against him and hence, their arguments did not cut much ice. Ultimately the RSS itself accepted that it does not allow women in its 'shakhas'' and its 'Rashtriya Sevika Samiti'' works among women, thus for the first time RSS being put on the defensive.
Rahul Gandhi also mocked the development claims of Modi in Gujarat. At every meeting during his yatra, Rahul made it a point to ask people as to why did 'Vikas Gando thayo chhe?' (Why has Vikas gone mad?) Replying himself, Rahul said, 'Vikas jhooth sunte sunte pagal ho gaya hai' ('Vikas has gone mad because of listening to repeated false promises'), drawing applause from the people. Rahul Gandhi also drew huge crowds in the tribal belt of Chhotaudepur and Panchmahals and tried to strike a chord with them by dancing with them. Tribals account for about 15 per cent of the state's population. While 27 seats out of a total of 182 seats, are reserved for tribals, the community influences the outcome of elections in over 40 seats in 11 districts of the state. Majority of the tribal seats are with the Congress.
What went unnoticed was that Modi followed the same route in Saurashtra and Central Gujarat regions that was taken by Rahul Gandhi during his yatra. This was perhaps done to neutralise the impact of Rahul's visit on the electorates. But reports from the areas say that PM did not get good response as he used to get prior to Rahul's visit. This is something that has worried the BJP.
The Congress effort to lure the rising young leaders of Gujarat-Patidar agitation leader Hardik Patel, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit activist Jignesh Mewani-seems to have created an atmosphere in favour of the Congress. When the Congress organised a public meeting on October 23 in Gandhinagar where Alpesh Thakor was formally inducted into the Congress, there was a huge turnout of people not witnessed in any of the Congress meetings in recent past. Rahul Gandhi is also in direct talks with Hardik Patel, asking him to join the Congress. Though Hardik has several times appealed to the people to vote for the Congress, he has yet not decided to join the Congress. He will take a decision after meeting Rahul Gandhi again in the first week of November. But Hardik Patel's activities has popularised the Congress among the Patidar youths. Earlier, Patidars considered Congress as its 'enemy' ' because of the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslims) theory innovated by former chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki under which Patidars were politically isolated and rendered ineffective in Gujarat politics. While Congress won 150 seats in 1980 on KHAM formula and remained in power on this equation for one and half decades, Patidars wholeheartedly supported the BJP which led to uprooting of Congress from the state in 1995 and the emergence of Narendra Modi, who finally displaced Congress from the Centre as well and is now talking of the 'Congress-mukt Bharat''. But with political equations having undergone a sea change since then, the same Patidars are now up-in-arms challenging the BJP and Modi as they feel that BJP and Modi have hurt their pride by not standing with them in their agitation for reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. Will Patidars succeed in throwing out the BJP from Gujarat and bring Congress back to power ? aA question whose answer will be known only on December 18 when the poll results will be out.
The fear of return of KHAM was raised by Deputy Chief Minsiter Nitin Patel a few days ago. Nitin Patel said that if the Congress came to power, Patidars would be politically isolated again. But Hardik Patel promptly countered him saying that BJP, by raising spectre of KHAM was trying to engineer communal riots and polarise the voters on religious lines. He asked the Patels not only to keep off from riots but also to prevent it in case some one tries to do it. In the past, Patels and Dalits were used in communal riots against Muslims. Hardik Patel said that the BJP, fearing defeat may try to provoke communal riots.
The Congress and Rahul Gandhi are also playing very smart on minority issues to ensure that BJP does not get a chance to paint Congress as a party of Muslims. This tactic was earlier used by BJP to polarise the majority Hindus against the Congress. But Rahul Gandhi avoided mentioning the word Muslim or minorities even once during his Gujarat visits and public functions, thus to avoid polarisation on religious lines. Political analysts have also cautioned the Congress to prevent polarisation on communal lines if it wants to win the elections as all other factors are currently going in its favour.