With the Bharatiya Janata Party on the back foot in the battle for Gujarat, the Congress could surrender its seeming advantage due to both lack of micro-management at the state and constituency levels, and paucity of desirable coordination amongst leaders entrusted with the task of following up on Rahul Gandhi’s visits.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been spending an enormous amount of time in the state where he was the Chief Minister for over 13 years and is putting in exhaustive efforts to overcome the hurdles in the path of his party, primarily because his two successors have been unable to deliver on the ground. The buzz in political circles is that he could make some startling announcements shortly before the first phase of polling. This could include the declaration of a new Chief Ministerial face.
In the given context, the name of Mansukh L. Mandaviya, Union Minister of State and General Secretary in the Gujarat BJP, is doing the rounds and one of the reasons being cited for this, is his close proximity to Modi, as well as his being from the Patel community, which is threatening to topple the saffron poll calculations this time round. The downside of this scenario is that the current Chief Minister, Vijay Rupani—who, in any case, is a peripheral figure—could voluntarily withdraw his name from the Chief Minister’s race.
Significantly and expectedly, the Gujarat campaign is solely being spearheaded by Modi and even Amit Shah, the party chief is keeping an uncharacteristically low-profile and therefore his visibility is sparse.
The BJP, with its better organisational set-up, and Modi’s specialisation of treating each seat with equal seriousness and thereby overseeing the overall strategy are being attributed as a catapulting point of a late comeback by his party. It is a known fact that even the harshest critics of the party concede, that in the end, the BJP may just romp home to victory, with the average Gujarati throwing its weight behind the Prime Minister, who has been their mascot as well as the champion for the preservation and elevation of Gujarati pride.
On the other hand, the Congress could not have had a more apt opportunity than the one in 2017 in wresting power in the state after 22 long years. It has been able to get the backing of three young leaders—Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani—who on the face of it, represent conflicting caste interests, but to some degree symbolise the discontent and dissatisfaction in the castes they represent with the BJP.
Rahul Gandhi’s meetings have been very impressive, this also being so because of an undercurrent of pronounced hostility towards the BJP on account of its failure to live up to its promises. However, the party lacks the capacity to capitalise on the tailor-made surface they have been asked to bat on, with none, or little micro-management at the grassroots level. Its top leadership in the state—Bharat Solanki, Shaktisinh Gohil, Tushar Chaudhury, Siddharth Patel and Arjun Modhwadia—does not possess the stature to take on a political titan like Modi. Moreover, they have their severe limitations in view of the poor organisational network in the state, like elsewhere in the country.
Congress sources said that Rahul Gandhi’s meetings, as well as his performance, have been phenomenal, especially given his past lacklustre record. He has been at his aggressive best by raising issues that have made the BJP most uncomfortable. However, the Congress activists turn up in full strength while he is visiting various areas, but are a no-show once he is not in the given vicinity. Thus, there is no follow-up to consolidate on any ground gained by the party.
On Friday, Rahul had addressed a meeting at the Thakorbhai Desai Hall in Ahmedabad where Ranjana Awasthi, a teacher, had voiced and highlighted the concerns of the teaching community regarding the policies being pursued by the state government. She spoke about inadequate remuneration, medical leave, pension and allowances. Rahul Gandhi surprised the audience by going down the aisle to embrace her as an expression of his complete empathy and total solidarity. A day after, no attempt was made by his party colleagues to grant her “protection” from the hostile elements in the BJP, who accosted her on Saturday morning, demanding to know why in the first place she had vocalised such grievances.
It is common knowledge that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul seem to be rather impressed with the performance of former Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, who is the party in-charge of the state. They have publicly praised him for his feat of “turning things around in Gujarat”. However, they have failed to comprehend his limitations in the absence of an adequate infrastructure, which the party has been unable to build over the years. Thus his pro-active role is being interpreted in Congress circles as an attempt to please the high command, while being delinked from the ground realities.
Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel who scored an impressive victory in the Rajya Sabha elections held some months ago, has been curiously maintaining a low key. He has been touring the state, despite recently undergoing a heart procedure, yet is not receiving the requisite political traction; with Rahul Gandhi, tipped to take over as the party chief next month, not extending his out and out patronage to him.
A victory in Gujarat would be a perfect start for Rahul Gandhi’s fresh political innings. This, however, may not be so due to the inherent problems within the grand old party, and the towering influence of Modi over the state. In the end, the difference in the number of seats won by each party is what would ultimately matter. For Modi, Gujarat is a battle he simply cannot afford to lose.