Congress all fired up, but Modi has tricks up his sleeve

Congress all fired up, but Modi has tricks up his sleeve

As campaigning moves into the last week, the Gujarat  election has become a no-holds-barred slugfest.

Handicapped by anti-incumbency and new caste captains as natural opponents, the BJP is on the backfoot but battling manfully to defend its Congress-besieged turf. The upshot is the slapstick spectacle of a Congress vice-chief going temple-hopping and Narendra Modi's BJP hurling maulanas into campaigning.

This is the Gujarat BJP's first  Assembly polls after Modi, its longest-serving  chief minister, moved to Delhi as prime minister in 2014. The BJP battles a debilitating hangover of the Modi-era,  which reduced his successors Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani to inconsequentials and their ineffective governance into a squalid mess that even Modi finds difficult to explain. Adding to their woes is the triad of caste-championing youth leaders working as force multipliers for Congress.  

The crowning irony is that all three -- Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore  and Jignesh Mevani -- are creations of  BJP's own internal feuding.

Hardik is a by-product of a tussle between two of Modi's closest lieutenants, former CM Anandiben Patel and party chief Amit Shah. OBC leader Alpesh Thakore indirectly owes his emergence to Deputy CM Nitin Patel. Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani is a product of sustained government neglect of the issue of exploitation of Dalits, which came to a head in the Una lynching of four Dalit youths in July last year for skinning a dead cow. The episode created a national furore and cost Anandiben her chief ministership. Thakore (Congress) and Mevani (independent) are contesting elections, Hardik is not.

But, for BJP, Hardik, convener of the pro-quota Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) is a thorn in the flesh. Two sedition cases, multiple arrests, six months outside Gujarat under court orders, 'sex' CDs to boot, and yet his persona keeps growing, turning him into a cult figure. Police permission was denied, and he hardly has any organisational support, yet his rally in Rajkot last week was a roaring success, leaving both Modi's rally in Morbi and Rahul Gandhi's congregation elsewhere in Saurashtra crying for people. Hardik's message is direct: uproot the BJP lock, stock and barrel.

He has come as a shot in the arm for Congress. Post-1985, when its chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki isolated the Patidars and used the KHAM formula (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) to bag 149 of the total 182 seats in a record that still remains unbeaten, the economically and numerically strong Patidars moved away to the Janata Party, and then to BJP. Congress hasn't won an election in Gujarat since.

Modi, during his rule  in Gujarat, had built up a formidable table of trophies which included, besides a steamroller majority in the Assembly, 30 of the 31 district panchayats, 192 of the 230 taluk panchayats, 49 of the 56 municipalities, and all eight municipal corporations of the state. It was the anger of the Patidars, voiced against BJP in local body polls in November 2015, that marked the resurrection of Congress in Gujarat.

Though BJP retained  its urban hold, winning all six municipal corporations, albeit with reduced margins, it suffered severe losses in rural Gujarat. Congress wrested 23 of the 31 district panchayats and picked up 134 of the 230 taluk panchayats, BJP only 67. In at least eight districts, BJP failed to win a single taluk panchayat. In 2010, it had won 83%, or 269, of the 323 local bodies.

Congress is brimming with confidence and taking on BJP with verve. Rahul Gandhi is taking on Modi on his home turf with confidence, and his newly evolved people-participatory campaigning is receiving enthusiastic response, particularly in the countryside.

Nevertheless, only a fool will write off BJP. For all its problems, it is no pushover. Facing erosion of its vote bank, it is now focused on splintering opposition votes. Thus, you have renegade Congressman Shankersinh Vaghela with his Janvikalp,  Nitish Kumar's JD-U as well as Sharad Pawar's NCP doing the hatchet job for BJP. Conscious effort is underway to wean Muslim women towards BJP through the triple talaq move, even as the communal card is in play, particularly on social media, to stoke fears that women will not be safe if Congress comes to power. One visual, for instance, shows a couple disturbed that their daughter has not yet returned home, in the backdrop of the azan prayers. A while later, the girl comes back and tells her parents not to worry, since Modi is there!

Modi will use every weapon in his armoury -- good, bad, and ugly -- to win Gujarat. His election speeches are indicative. His arguments have veered from the emotional tug-at-the-heart to bland commerce and carrot and, finally, unsubtle threats. He opens a typical speech with thanksgiving to his mother (Gujarat) "for raising a tea-seller to the office of PM", and urging people to take revenge against "those who are insulting their son". It turns to commerce and carrot, when he says Gujaratis understand business and they know it pays to have the same party government in the state and the Centre. That quickly turns into an ugly threat when he says that a government of "those opposed to development" (read, Congress) will not get a rupee from his government at the Centre!

While BJP is facing erosion of its rural support base, it's the urban areas which have steadfastly remained with it. In 2012, it won 60 of the 64 urban seats. This time, urban discontent is noticeable. But, is it strong enough to want to topple Modi's party?

(The writer is a Gandhinagar-based senior journalist)

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