Gujarat elections: How Congress took on BJP on its home turf, and lost

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Ahmedabad: If elections are all about perception, the Congress has achieved a major breakthrough by making strong inroads in BJP’s citadel of Gujarat. For while the grand old party did not win, it did give the ruling party, which is headed for its fifth straight victory, its toughest battle in the home state of two of the country’s tallest leaders—Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah.

Gujarat Elections 2017 is also being seen as a revival for Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who was recently elevated to the post.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) missed the 150-plus mark by a huge margin, the party has managed to win in a neck-and-neck fight with the Congress. The Gujarat election results have also raised a question mark on the success of the Gujarat model, which was the main poll plank for Modi and the BJP in winning the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which saw Congress decline after a decade in power at the Centre.

The Congress formed a rainbow coalition of three youth leaders comprising Patel Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. Gandhi himself took the lead by taking out the Navsarjan Yatra across Gujarat during which he visited several temples, a move which his detractors saw as playing soft Hindutva politics.

In October, Thakor who belongs to the powerful Gujarat Kshatriya Thakor Sena, joined the Congress at a rally in Gandhinagar in the presence of Gandhi. Thakor, who won from Radhanpur seat, sought about four seats for his close aides. While the Congress ran the risk of losing all these seats, it chose to rope in Thakor, who was also being wooed by the BJP for a ticket. If Thakor was fielded by the BJP, the battle would have been long over for the Congress as the BJP was planning to pitch him against PAAS leader Hardik Patel to make it a Patels versus OBC battle.

So while Hardik Patel did not officially join the Congress, he asked his supporters to defeat the ruling party by voting for the Congress. BJP was also facing anti-incumbency in a state where it has ruled for nearly two decades. Factors like farm distress and joblessness also allowed the Congress president to woo dissident voters.

Dalit leader Mevani, meanwhile, decided to contest as an independent from Vadgam, a stronghold of the Congress. The Congress decided to support Mevani by not fielding any candidate and moved its sitting MLA from Vadgam to Idar constituency. Mevani has won from the seat.

Another caste leader whom Congress fielded was tribal leader Chhotu Vasava, who split from Janata Dal (United), JDU, after voting in favour of Congress candidate Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat in August this year.

Congress-backed social media campaign “Vikaas Gaando Thayo Chhe” (development has gone berserk) did help the party achieve an edge in its election campaign narrative as the BJP was pushed to make development its main agenda for the elections.

The BJP’s reply with the election slogan “Hun Chhu Vikas, Hun Chhu Gujarat” (I am Gujarat, I am development) was questioned by Gandhi, who in his election campaign speeches tried to puncture BJP’s development claims in the state. On the last day of the campaign, Modi took to a seaplane, in what was seen as an answer to Gandhi.

The battle was, however, too tough for the Congress to win, given the popularity of Modi and the electioneering skills of Shah and the BJP. The BJP, meanwhile, focused on the tribal belt, where it had won 14 out of 27 seats in 2012.

Also, the Congress had already lost as many as 16 MLAs since 2012 elections. While Vitthal Radadiya, who is a strong leader in Saurashtra where the Patidar agitation was expected to dent the BJP votes, joined the BJP in 2014, about 12 MLAs defected to the ruling party during the Rajya Sabha elections. Also, Shankarsinh Vaghela, Congress’s tallest leader in the state, had decided to form his own party at one point in time.