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Gujarat polls 2017: A path full of challenges ahead for Ashok Gehlot

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 28 April 2017, 19:44 IST

Having taken over the charge of the Congress in poll-bound Gujarat, former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is all set to tread a path full of Herculean challenges. Given the multiplicity of tasks that Gehlot needs to perform to bring the party back to power, this is not going to be easy.

Gehlot will be facing a lot of challenges both within the party as well as from outside when the politicking starts picking up before the high-profile elections.

Scheduled to be held later this year, the Gujarat elections will be the centre of Indian politics because the state is the home turf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as BJP president Amit Shah.

For some time now things have not been moving in the right direction for the BJP and Gujarat has witnessed two chief ministers in Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani since Modi gave up the post to become the PM in 2014.

In the last two years, the state government and the BJP have seen Patels, Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and the Dalits airing massive resentment against them. It is here that the biggest challenge lies for Gehlot.

Can he make use of this resentment against the government and the BJP and convert it into a support base for the Congress?

Use the odds well?

“The fact that Modi had to recently come and carry out a road show in Surat is being seen as a direct result of the Patel or Patidar agitation and simply infers to the fact that everything is not fine with the BJP in this area which has been an economic and a political support base for the party,” pointed out veteran political observer RK Mishra.

The next big challenge for Gehlot, according to observers, remains the cash-rich BJP and the cash-strapped Congress. It is being pointed out that over the years the support base of the Congress among the industrial and business class in Gujarat has eroded considerably and has moved towards the BJP.

This is the segment that provides electoral funds and elections in Gujarat are not an 'austerity affair'. Money has a lot of role. It is being pointed that with its rich coffers the BJP makes a big show of everything.

Every event of the BJP towards the elections is a gala affair and the intensity goes on increasing as the polls approach. But the Congress stands nowhere when it comes to matching this showmanship and splendour.

On the political front, Gehlot will first have to put his house in order by sending out a strong message to the warring factions within the party.

“Since they have a leader like Shankersinh Vaghela at the top, they just need to emulate Captain Amarinder Singh's Punjab model by just telling the others to either fall in line or leave. This is the only way out. The era of coaxing and persuading trouble makers has passed,” says Mishra.

Faction factor

At present, there are several groups operating within the Congress. The primary ones are those led by former chief minister Vaghela and Bharatsinh Solanki, who is a former union minister and the son of former chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki.

Then come the factions led by former Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) chief and leader of opposition Arjun Modhwadia and former national spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil.

There are also groups led by Tushar Chaudhary and Siddharth Patel who are the sons of former chief ministers Amarsinh Chaudhary and Chimanbhai Patel. And above all, is the group that owes its allegiance to party heavyweight Ahmed Patel.

Observers feel that the new Congress in-charge will have to strike a balance between these groups by adopting a carrot-and-stick policy when it comes to distribution of tickets. As of now the saying of “too many cooks spoil the broth” stands very true for the Congress in Gujarat.

One of the major challenges for Gehlot in terms of garnering public support for the party remains attracting the youth to the party. Observers recount that the initiative undertaken by Rahul Gandhi ahead of the 2012 Assembly polls in Gujarat to overhaul the party structure, particularly the youth organisations, had delivered positive results in terms of more youngsters being drawn in.

But the drive stands lost somewhere midway and it remains to be seen if Gehlot can put the initiative back on track.

Problem list

It needs to be pointed out that the three major agitations in Gujarat against the BJP in the state, over the last two years, have been led by youths. These were

– The agitations led by Hardik Patel for reservation benefits to the Patidar community

– The movement that saw consolidation of the OBCs led by Alpesh Thakor initially against liquor and then for protecting OBC rights

– The movement for Dalit rights that was led by Jignesh Mevani.

Sources say that of these three, Alpesh has started talking of floating a regional party while the other two are unlikely to support the BJP.

Now it remains up to the Gehlot-led Congress to make use of this scenario and engage these young leaders. Whether he is able to do so remains to be seen.

Further, there is a rising tendency within the party to field new and young faces from these communities so that the Congress is able to gain new ground in areas where it has been doing poorly.

It is being said that by fielding more Patels, the party has a chance of improving its tally in the urban areas. Similarly, the OBCs claim that they can influence results in 80 seats of the total 182 seats.

Power tussle

It needs to be pointed out that the Congress' reverses in Gujarat began when its victory model, given by Jinabhai Darji of KHAM (Kshatriya Harijan Adivasi and Muslims), stood disintegrated when the Harijan and the Adivasi support-base got transferred to the BJP.

The BJP also made dents into the Kshatriya support while a large section of the Muslims also stands disillusioned by the Congress.

Gehlot will have to set in place a mechanism to regain support among all these communities. The silver lining for him at this point is that a large number of Patidars, who have been the core support base of the BJP, are now annoyed by it and are standing outside on the periphery.

Then there is the issue of credibility for the Congress. It is evident in Gujarat today that anything said by the Congress is not believed by the people while the same thing, said by someone else, gets due public response.

It was experienced by this correspondent ahead of the last parliamentary elections that issues raised by Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) national convener Arvind Kejriwal caught the public fancy while the people had been dismissive of them when the Congress leaders had been raising them over the last several years.

Gehlot also needs to put in place a team for forward planning. The Congress has had no local-level effective think tank that can devise strategies to take on the BJP despite the fact that there are numerous issues available to take on the BJP.

Meanwhile, people are questioning the change of guard and the handing over the charge of the party to Gehlot at the eleventh hour. For Gehlot, it is a race against time and he will surely have to put in a lot of extra effort if the Congress has to pull it off.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 28 April 2017, 19:10 IST