Gujarat polls: Why Congress is all set to give BJP its strongest challenge ever
After a phase of uncertainty, the Congress has managed to seal key alliances for the upcoming Assembly elections in Gujarat. The party has addressed the concerns of the Hardik Patel's Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) by replacing two of its candidates and giving the outfit an additional seat in its first list of 77 candidates.
The newly formed Bharatiya Tribal Party, (BTP) formed by breakaway Janata Dal (United) leader Chhotubhai Vasava, has been given six seats by the Congress.
The Congress also appears to have taken a conscious decision not to concede to the demands of the Nationalist Congress Party, which has now decided to go it alone in the state. Some say the Congress was miffed at the NCP's dubious role during the Rajya Sabha elections in August this year.
With the alliances now in place, the Congress is all set to take on the BJP and try to win back a state where it has been out of power since 1995. While the Congress might not be in a winning position as yet, there are several reasons why this will be the toughest fight it has given the BJP in over two decades.
Alliances and arithmetic
The alliance with PAAS has brought the Congress back in the game in seats where it had no chance. Patidars account for 12% of the population in Gujarat. In as many as 71 out of 182 constituencies, they form over 15% of the population and can tilt the scales in either direction.
PAAS support is likely to help the Congress in Patidar dominated districts like Surat, Junagadh, Amreli, Mehsana and Morbi. The three seats given to PAAS so far are cases in point. Patidars form around 60% of the population in Varachha in Surat. This is the hub of diamond polishing, a trade dominated by Patels and one that has suffered as a result of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's note ban and the Goods and Services Tax.
Here the Congress has replaced its nominee, Praful Togadia, kin of VHP leader Pravin Togada, with former BJP leader Dhiru Gajera after being pressured by PAAS.
Another PAAS leader Ashok Jirawala has been fielded from Kamrej where Patidars constitute over 50% of the population. Also located in Surat district, BJP has won Kamrej continuously since 2002. In 2012, it won with a huge margin of over 60,000 votes.
The third seat given to PAAS so far is Dhoraji in Rajkot district, where the outfits Saurashtra convenor Lalit Vasoya will be fighting on a Congress ticket. Patidars form nearly 40% of the population in the constituency which also has a 19% Muslim population. This is the stronghold of Porbandar MP Vitthalbhai Radadiya, who won the seat from 1990 to 2012, initially as part of the BJP, then the RJP and finally the Congress. He is now back with the BJP.
It is not surprising that Congress is banking on PAAS to break Radadiya's citadel.
While surveys suggest that Congress might be losing some ground in its tribal strongholds in North Gujarat, it is likely to do well in South Gujarat's tribal seats after sealing an alliance with JD(U) rebel leader Chhotubhai Vasava. Vasava is the one of the tallest tribal leaders in Gujarat and is popular in South Gujarat's tribal pockets. Some of Congress' tribal leaders were feeling threatened by his entry but eventually had to give way. A key role in wooing Vasava was played by Congress leader Ahmed Patel who hails from the same Bharuch district.
The six seats given to Vasava's Bharatiya Tribal Party are: Vasava's own seat Jhagadiya in Bharuch district, Dediapada in Narmada district, Mangrol in Surat district, Morva Hadaf in Panchmahals district, Vaghodia in Vadodara district and Limkheda in Dahod district. A BTP candidate will be fighting on a Congress ticket in Ankleshwar in Bharuch district.
It is interesting that BTP has been given seats across Gujarat, not just in Vasava's area of influence in Bharuch district. It appears the idea is to portray him as a pan-Gujarat tribal leader like Hardik Patel is portrayed as a Patidar leader, Jignesh Mevani as a Dalit leader and Alpesh Thakor a leader of OBCs.
While Thakor has joined the Congress and is likely to contest, Mevani has decided to focus on defeating the BJP without sharing a stage with Congress leaders.
The Congress strategy is to project that it will empower every community in Gujarat and give due respect to its leaders, unlike the BJP which is a two-man show.
OBCs form 40% of the population in Gujarat, Adivasis are 15%, Dalits 7%, Muslims 9% and Patidars 12%. Together these communities form 83% of Gujarat's population. The Congress' calculation is that if it manages to get a majority of these communities' votes in addition to the votes of some dissatisfied traders, it will be able to defeat the BJP in its strongest bastion in the country.
By most accounts, the Congress has run an effective campaign in Gujarat. The 'Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe' and 'Mhara Hala Chhetri Gaya' campaigns carried out by Congress and PAAS supporters on social media became hugely popular. Rahul Gandhi's roadshows across Gujarat are also said to have received a positive response. To add to this, now the Congress has a huge crowd-puller like Hardik Patel on its side.
The success of the Congress campaign was highlighted in a recent survey conducted by ABP News and Lokniti-CSDS. Here are some key findings:
- 49% of those surveyed said that the Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe campaign reflected Gujarat's reality while only 27% said it was inaccurate.
- Interestingly even among BJP voters, 36% said the slogan was true as against 39% who said it wasn't.
- Worryingly for the BJP, 59% respondents who said they weren't neither BJP nor Congress voters, said that Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe was an accurate depiction of Gujarat while only 19% said it wasn't.
- The 'Congress Aave Chhe' (Congress is coming) slogan too seems to have worked. 31% of non-aligned voters who had heard of the slogan said that Congress would win from their seat as opposed to 14% who said BJP would win.
- On the other hand, BJP's campaign that Congress hates Gujarat and Gujaratis didn't seem to find many takers. 51% disagreed with the argument and only 28% agreed.
- Similarly, 46% respondents said that Modi's recent announcements of development projects in Gujarat were only done keeping polls in mind while 36% said they were genuine. 56% even said that the government should have improved existing infrastructure instead of starting a bullet train.
- 47% of the general public and 56% traders were dissatisfied with the recent concessions on GST against 25% and 23% respondents who said they were satisfied.
- Between August and October, the number of people with a negative opinion on GST increased from 25% to 40%.
- 55% people and 69% non-aligned voters said there should be an inquiry on the allegations against Amit Shah's son.
The survey clearly showed that the Congress and PAAS campaigns as well as Rahul Gandhi's attacks against the BJP on GST and Jay Shah's business, appear to have struck a chord in Gujarat. The fall in BJP's projected voteshare by ABP-CSDS's estimate also fell from 59% to 47% while the Congress' increased from 29% to 41%. This seems to be largely a result of the Congress' campaign, PAAS' efforts and the Modi government's policies.
Perhaps the Congress' biggest achievement in these elections is that it has managed to contain factionalism, which it had been notorious for in Gujarat. The party leadership appears to have been decisive in ousting Shankersinh Vaghela and telling the remaining leaders to bury their differences.
As a result, top leaders like Bharatsinh Solanki, Shaktisinh Gohil, Arjun Modhwadia and Siddharth Patel have all been working in close coordination. The party even appointed four working presidents in addition to state unit chief Solanki.
The four working presidents are from different communities and regions: Paresh Dhanani (Patidar, Saurashtra), Tushar Chaudhary (Adivasi, South Gujarat), Karsandas Soneri (Dalit, North Gujarat) and Kunvarji Bavaliya (Koli OBC, Saurashtra).
A key role in reining in factionalism and managing conflicting intrests has been played by the party's in-charge for Gujarat Ashok Gehlot and Ahmed Patel.
Through an effective campaign and clever alliances, the Congress has managed to show itself as a viable, winnable option in Gujarat for the first time in decades. Anti-incumbency sentiment against BJP always existed but Congress was always too weak or disunited to take advantage of it. This has changed. The Congress is making gains in areas like Kachhch and Saurashtra, where it had been weak since the 1990s. Even in cities like Surat, where the party had been decimated, it is now giving the BJP a tough fight.
For the first time since the BJP first came to power in Gujarat, the vatavaran (atmosphere) or hawa is in favour of the Congress. According to the ABP-CSDS survey, 38% voters said Congress will win Gujarat, only marginally behind the BJP at 39%. The worrying part for BJP is that 36% non-aligned voters felt Congress is winning against 14% who thought BJP will win.
The challenge for the party is now to get the ticket selection right and somehow withstand the last leg of the campaign in which PM Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and several Union ministers and BJP chief ministers are going to 'carpet bomb' Gujarat by hitting the campaign trail.
The Congress has given a good fight so far, but has it done enough to win Gujarat?