Gujarat Assembly elections: 9 things I learnt from the campaign battlefield
If Congress hopes to defeat BJP, they will have to fight every election as if their life depends on it. That’s the only way Modi and Shah know how to fight elections.
- Total Shares
As Gujarat readies itself for the final phase of polling in what has been a high-voltage election, I put together the big takeaways from the election battlefield based on four visits to the state and hours of conversation with both the aam and khaas aadmi of Gujarat.
1) BJP's toughest fight in two decades: On camera, BJP leaders try to sound uber confident, but once the cameras go off, they accept that this has been a tough election. One BJP big gun admitted to me that the BJP has not had to work this hard in any election in Gujarat over the last two decades. The Congress, which had a track-record of imploding during previous elections, has for once come together as a team and fought back harder than the BJP imagined.
Senior leaders reveal that after the rollout of the GST in July the backlash in the state was so strong that their own party workers started fearing that the BJP may lose. The mood in the BJP’s Shree Kamalam office, Gandhinagar, is now upbeat and the party is confident that it has been able to contain the damage and will confidently cross the finishing line on December 18. What’s interesting is that even BJP leaders are no longer talking about snagging 150 plus seats.
2) Rahul Gandhi is a changed man: For a neta long derided as "Pappu" and dismissed as a political liability, the Gujarat campaign has seen Rahul Gandhi in a new avatar. Rahul is not a patch on Modi even now when it comes to public speaking, but there's a marked difference. People are now more willing to listen to what he has to say. The new Congress president has upped his game as a public speaker, there’s now a theatrical flourish in his speeches and his messaging is sharp and consistent.
During this campaign, Rahul has succeeded in sowing doubts in the minds of voters about the success of the "Gujarat model" of development. Crowds at his rallies are charged and voters genuinely seem excited when Rahul enters the venue. This is in sharp contrast to what this reporter had seen in previous elections, where it seemed as if crowds brought in, were always waiting for Rahul’s speech to get over so that they could get back home.
That said, Rahul still falters. In Anand, he said he wanted to talk about Sardar Patel and would come back to India’s Iron Man later during his speech, only to forget later. He also fumbled pronouncing the names of the villages near Sanand, where land had allegedly been given at throwaway rates to corporates. But instead of being mocked at for the mispronunciations — as would have been case earlier — the crowd chipped in to help Rahul get the names right. The villagers seemed keen to help Rahul stand up and not see him trip. This is a big change.
Whether Rahul can sustain his newfound political tenacity after counting day is still a big question. Will he again jet out of India for another long new year break or get down to the business of rebuilding the party in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, which are due for polls next year? While no one frowns upon politicians in the US and Europe for taking frequent holidays during office, Rahul is up against Modi and Amit Shah, who don’t lose an opportunity to highlight that they are 24x7 politicians. If RaGa hopes to sustain his new found mojo, he will have to realise that there is no party time in Indian politics.
The 2012 elections were about giving Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions a springboard. But 2017 seems to be a different ballgame.
3) There's no one meta-narrative: In 2017 different campaign themes have played out simultaneously without any one of them becoming the central driver for the elections. The 2002 elections took place in a surcharged communal atmosphere after the post-Godhra riots.
In 2007, the embers of Godhra were still simmering and Hindu Hriday Samrat Narendra Modi had started yielding dividends of his "Gujarat model" of development. The 2012 elections were about giving Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions a springboard. But 2017 seems to be a different ballgame: anti-incumbency runs deep after 22 years; the Patel agitation has ruptured BJP’s core Patidar vote bank; the youth complain bitterly of joblessness and Narendra Modi is no longer in the fray as chief minister.
The urban-rural divide is stark with farmers and Patidars in rural areas angry with the BJP. Traders in urban areas are upset with the BJP, but not enough to vote against it. Angry voters in Kutch-Saurashtra could dent BJP’s prospects. Voters in north Gujarat, which has been the hotbed of the Patel and Thakor agitation, are riled up as well, which could pull down the BJP’s tally from the last time. But urban, south and central Gujarat remain strongly aligned with the BJP. Even if the saffron party loses some of its vote share in these areas, its margin of victory in the last elections is high enough not to upset the BJP’s applecart.
4) Modi is BJP's last man standing: At Sanand, the prime minister was hardly able to speak because his throat was sore, but he soldiered on. The Narendra Modi of 2017 is like the Sachin Tendulkar of the Indian cricket team of the 1990s. Modi literally is the last man standing. If he falls, the BJP falls. Traders, youngsters, and farmers say they are upset with the government for unleashing the triple whammy of joblessness, demonetisation, and GST, but almost no one has anything against the prime minister. Three and a half years of being in power seems to have done nothing to diminish the teflon coating around Narendra Modi.
If it had not been for Narendra Modi, 22 years of anti-incumbency would have sunk the BJP in 2017. Narendra Modi realises that even a fall of one seat from the 2012 tally will be seen by his critics as a blow to the prime minister. A lot of the recent campaigning presenting the PM as a low-caste victim of an upper caste Opposition vendetta is a rear guard attempt to charge the BJP’s dispirited voter. Party leaders admit that such tactics may not result in additional votes for the BJP, but are hopeful that this will help rally the party faithful who may have been dispirited.
5) BJP's biggest nightmare is a 24-year-old: The Prime Minister doesn’t talk of Hardik Patel in his rallies, almost making it seem as if the Hardik factor does not matter. In private BJP leaders accept that the 24-year-old has proved to be a feisty adversary. Though not even eligible to contest the elections, the young Patidar neta is boldly daring to go where no Gujarati leader has tread before. Hardik has been calling Modi "feku" and even generating applause and whistles while he’s at it. No Gujarati leader has attacked Narendra Modi with the same ferocity as Hardik Patel.
Like it was the case with Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, the BJP finds it tough to deal with an adversary who has no skeletons in his closet as well as nothing to lose. The BJP had hoped Hardik would lose his grasp over the Patidars after Anandiben Patel was removed as CM, but his rallies and road-shows across Gujarat show that his appeal in the community has not diminished.
A Hardik rally, especially the ones in the evening, resembles a rock concert. The audience even sways to the beats. Hardik told India Today TV that he’s open to joining the Congress after the elections if a serious offer is on the table. Privately, however, he nurses hopes of setting up a third front over the next five years and challenging the BJP in 2022 in case the Congress doesn’t give him a good offer. Hardik has matured at a breathtaking pace over the last two years shunning the bombast of 2015, learning from his jail time and the dozens of legal cases slammed on him. How the next government handles Hardik will be interesting because the BJP has already learnt that trying to crush him can be counterproductive.
6) Ashok Gehlot born again - the Congress' Gujarat strategist: Winning or losing a war depends on who the general appoints as his lieutenants. Earlier, Rahul Gandhi’s choice of leaders like Madhusudan Mistry and Mohan Prakash for crucial Assembly elections bewildered Congress insiders. But by picking Ashok Gehlot and more importantly by giving the former Rajasthan CM the kind of space and respect that he has, Rahul has shown that in his born-again avatar, he is willing to work closely with the old guard of the Congress party.
Even senior BJP leaders privately admit how well Gehlot has done for the Congress this election. From stitching together alliances with the three young turks — Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani — from distribution of tickets to building a caste coalition, the Congress has done far better compared to the last few elections.
A lot of these successes can be attributed to the low-key and grounded Gehlot, who in typical Congress-style has the ability to listen to everyone and take people along. The only negative on Gehlot’s report card is giving away too many tickets to Thakor’s candidates who are now proving to be the Congress’ weak links in north Gujarat. A good showing by the Congress will brighten Gehlot’s chances of being projected as the party’s face for the Rajasthan elections in 2018.
7) Indian politics has taken a pro-Hindu turn: Much has been made of Rahul Gandhi visiting more than two dozen temples in the run-up to the Gujarat elections. This is a departure from the past and an attempt to woo Gujarat’s largely majoritarian voters. But make no mistake that in showing off his "janeu" Rahul has also sowed the seeds of re-crafting the Congress party in a pro-Hindu image. Over the years, the Congress was accused of indulging in minority appeasement. In a bid to appear pro-Muslim, it ended up with an anti-Hindu image. By hopping from one temple to another, Rahul is trying to shed the party’s anti-Hindu image. Muslims have largely been missing from Rahul Gandhi’s campaign narrative.
Going forward, the Congress will try to differentiate between Hinduism and Hindutva, but it’s quite evident that the new Grand Old Party under Rahul is likely to work on shedding the pro-minority image it acquired under his mother. The report filed by the committee headed by Congress veteran AK Antony which delved into the reason for the party’s rout in 2014 had suggested that the party’s pro-minority image alienated Hindu voters. It remains to be seen whether this pro-Hindu avatar will yield electoral dividends to the Congress or prove to be yet another blunder like Rahul’s father Rajiv opening the doors of the Bahri Masjid in 1986 to compensate for the party’s position on the Shah Bano case the year before.
8) Once a trader, always a trader: Gujarat traders and the BJP in 2017 resemble an estranged couple whose marriage is on the rocks, but neither partner is willing to file for divorce. Disaffection among traders has been one of the running themes in the hustings, but the fact remains that generations of businessmen have never voted for any other party than the BJP. While the BJP bent over backwards to try and appease the traders by rationalising GST rates, concerns over compliance issues remain a bugbear for traders.
Traders in cities like Surat have been warmly welcoming Congress leaders into markets where the Grand Old Party did not even bother to campaign in previous elections. When pressed over why they were hobnobbing with Congress leaders, traders privately admitted that much of this grandstanding was to teach the "arrogant" BJP a lesson. After having given jitters to the BJP leadership and getting the party to concede to most of their demands, traders now quietly admit they will stick with the party.
9) Defeat is not an option: The 2017 poll in Gujarat has shown once again the fighting spirit of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. No matter how high anti-incumbency may be and no matter angry voters may be, Modi and Shah have shown that they don’t bother to hedge bets. For them, each battle is do or die, defeat is not an option and they are willing to do whatever it takes to win. No matter whether their tactics are considered to be below the belt by the commentariat.
Top BJP leaders privately admit that a lot of the sharp rhetoric is being drummed up to whip passions ahead of the polling day. While this may hurt the party’s image over the long-run, for the time being, they are more bothered about retaining their bastion of Gujarat. If the Congress hopes to defeat the BJP, its leaders have no option but to fight every election as if their life depends on it because that’s the only way Modi and Shah know how to fight elections.
Also, the Congress needs to work on strengthening its organisational structure well ahead of the polls. Waking up just months ahead of elections may have worked for the Congress in the past, but it is unlikely to succeed when you are up against the most formidable election machine in modern India.