Taming the lion in his lair? Congress is basking under a borrowed sun of anti-incumbency and hopes to rake in the benefits

By Darshan Desai*
There is just one name which prevents the opposition Congress in Gujarat from celebrating a sureshot victory in a hurry. There is just one name which prevents the BJP in Gujarat from conceding defeat in a hurry.
Narendra Modi.
More crucial than the fact that he has never seen a defeat in his political life is that he just can’t afford to lose Gujarat in 2017. More crucial than the fact that this is his home state is that Gujarat is his model state of everything that he stands for.
A defeat here would mean all his politics that he claims to be implementing across the country being thrown to the winds in his very own laboratory, by the very people who sustained and nurtured it over 15 years since 2002.
More crucial, still, is that two of the most self-touted big ticket decisions under his tutelage have come to hound him in his very own Gujarat just half way through his prime ministership. The very two decisions of demonetization and Goods and Services Tax (GST) have already become a millstone around his neck.
It is a state and not a national election and he is the prime minister and no longer a chief minister, but when it comes to Gujarat these differences collapse and everything is sure to revolve around him.
If Modi is removed from the narrative, a stereotype analysis of present day Gujarat politics would tell you the Congress is winning hands down for the first time after 32 years -- it has never formed a government in the state since 1985 after its best performance of 149 seats out of 182. A record Narendra Modi has not been able to break with all his efforts and might.
It is for the first time that two loyal votebanks of the Bharatiya Janata Party from where its entire rank and file was born and which have raised the party to its present height in Gujarat have turned its worst enemies.
The urban middle class made up of small and medium businessmen, traders and office-goers are visibly angry with the BJP over GST and demonetization since they have suffered the most because of the twin blows. This is not an interpretation or analysis, but a pulse that is beng heard loud and clear, even by the BJP. No amount of convincing by Narendra Modi himself at public meetings that the two decisions would work good in the future seems to have cut ice.
There is no disagreement among any one with the GST as a reform, but the anger -- it is not a grouse but anger -- in the way it is being hastily driven down their throat refuses to die out. What is being called teething problems by Modi and BJP president Amit Shah have actually taken a heavy toll on the small and medium business segments as well as the traders, who have still not emerged from the pounding of demonetization.
The other key votebank of the BJP is the Patidars, who have been the party’s numerical, social and economic backbone and its 12 per cent population is spread across all demographies of Gujarat. The mammoth response to Patidar reservation fighter Hardik Patel’s rallies across the State had to be seen to be believed.
The agitation of the 24-year-old lad, who still needs more than nine months to be able to contest an assembly election, for reservation to Patidars in government jobs and educational institutions under the OBC category grew in the middle of 2015 in the backdrop of agricultural stress, rising unemployment and a burgeoning private sector in education. His words appeal to younger Patidars between the twenties and thirties in the rural and semi-urban areas, who haven’t mostly seen any other party’s rule in Gujarat, and have started believing in him that they had actually been used like a votebank by the BJP.
While there are already 20 lakh registered unemployed youth in Gujarat besides at least half as many not on the employment bureau records, the impact of demonetization and GST have only accentuated the crisis and made the Patidar agitation as much stronger. This holds equally true for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) and the Dalits, who have also been hit by note ban and the new tax, while being already plagued by unemployment and the agrarian crisis they had been facing for long.
Vijay Rupani with Anandiben Patel
Besides setting off a debate within the Patidars, Hardik Patel’s agitation has had a cascading effect on the OBCs and the Dalits who are also asserting under Alpesh Thakore, convenor of OBC, SC, ST Manch and Thakore Sena, and lawyer-activist Jignesh Mevani, convenor of Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, who have emerged during the last two years.
Though Alpesh Thakore had earlier threatened that a quota to the Patidars that would cut into the OBC category beneficiaries would be resisted, he and Hardik today stand together, along with Jignesh, against the ruling BJP. The caste contradictions between the three, who otherwise have been traditionally at loggerheads, have at the moment collapsed into an uncanny unity.
There is no social engineering here by the opposition Congress party, which hasn’t been able to demonstrate any such political astuteness and intellect all these decades, but this assertion by the trinity of Patel, Thakore and Mevani, has significantly spawned from the very laboratory that created the Gujarat Model.
Never before during the long BJP -- and Narendra Modi -- rule has such level of dissatisfaction been so visible. Besides farmers, traders and youth, even ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers, anganwadi workers, temporary government teachers and temporary government employees, have been seen going on a warpath. They have been victims of a policy introduced by Narendra Modi as chief minister of outsourcing these jobs to cut government costs and have been demanding hike in their meager remuneration and regular jobs.
A few instances are a good representative of the mood. On October 22, agitating ASHA workers pelted bangles on the prime minister’s road show in Vadodara which itself was a major disaster, earlier in the month angry residents tied up a municipal corporator of the ruling BJP in the Vadodara Municipal Corporation to a tree and beat him up for failing to prevent demolition of their slum.
Few months ago, a government clerk from the Patidar community, Gopal Italiya hurled a shoe at Minister of State for Home Pradeepsinh Jadeja and spewed venom on his facebook page. Sometime last year, BJP president Amit Shah incurred the wrath of Patidars at a rally in Surat when they hurled chairs and raised slogans to force him to wrap up the meeting and leave the venue in a hurry.
Despite all odds, it is Modi’s time-tested Gujarat magic that gives the BJP all hopes of scraping through. “This is nothing, this is just a government function to announce pioneering schemes. The election is yet to come, Narendra Modi is coming, he is going to shake the election ground all across Gujarat, be prepared, Modi is coming.”
When Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said this during the prime minister’s last visit to the State before the election dates were announced, his face had all the makings of an urchin telling the kids in the neighbourhood: Just Wait You Guys Troubling Me, My Dad Is Coming.
And Narendra Modi knows that when nothing works in Gujarat, it is the time-tested Brahmastra made up of Hindutva and nationalism that annihilates the enemy in one go. Already, some noises have started and the recipe is ready. Twisting P Chidambaram’s October 29 remark that when people of Kashmir speak of azadi they mean autonomy and this could be selectively given within the framework of the Constitution such that it remains very much a part of India.
This, in the words of the prime minister, means that the Congress is hand in glove with the separatists and the terrorists against the interests of India. A key component of the campaign pitch for Gujarat is ready. In his inimitable oratory,
Modi only needs to ask Gujarat now: You want these people to come to power? Can these people be allowed? “No,” the crowds will invariably scream in unison.
Amit Shah with Vijay Rupani
Already, Vijay Rupani has stirred up a seemingly outlandish controversy seeking to link Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s Political Secretary Ahmed Patel to one of the two suspected IS operatives arrested by the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad just because he worked as an echo-cardiogram technician at a charitable hospital, of which Patel was among the trustees till 2014 before he left.
The technician had joined the hospital just over six months ago and quit two days before his arrest. Rupani had said it only once in Gujarat, while the rest was taken over by the BJP’s spin doctors in New Delhi as part of a decided strategy. The slugfest between the BJP and the Congress was then continuing in Delhi, with the ruling party demanding no less than Sonia Gandhi and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s explanation and Ahmed Patel’s resignation from the Rajya Sabha.
The BJP’s nervousness can be gauged by the fact Narendra Modi himself made five visits to Gujarat in October out of nine so far this year and in all 19 ever since he took charge as the prime minister. The last visit before the Election Commission declared the poll dates was on October 22 when he came to inaugurate the Ghogha-Dahej Ro-Ro (roll on, roll off) Ferry Service from Bhavnagar. He laid foundation stones and announced schemes worth around Rs 20,000 crore in October.
He was twice in Gujarat on September 13 and 14 to lay the foundation stone of the bullet train with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then on September 17, his birthday, to dedicate to the nation the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project at its full height of 138 metres attained two years ago after Narmada Control Authority cleared it in June 2014.
The Congress, on its part, is basking under a borrowed sun of anti-incumbency and hopes to rake in the benefits. However, there are two things that are different for the party this time. One is that after long, it has discovered energy to meet Narendra Modi eye for eye after the hard-earned Rajya Sabha victory of Ahmed Patel, which in the words of Patel himself to this writer “was like snatching life from the jaws of death.”
The Congress losing all the 26 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 general elections had not pricked the rank and file as much as the BJP’s all-out effort to bring the party to its knees that rubbed off on their sense of self-esteem, like never before. The party ranks in Gujarat had slipped so much into the habit of losing over the decades that nothing could shake their inertia and diffidence. This did the trick.
Next was the unprecedented and incredible response to Rahul Gandhi during his two three-day sojourns to the State, with two more yet to come in November. More and more cheers wherever he went emboldened Rahul, who has sharpened his direct attack on Modi. The last was when he termed the contentious GST Gabbar Singh Tax and continued to hit where it hurt the most by addressing -- and successfully -- the small and medium businesses, which have been the backbone of Gujarat’s economy and the most trusted votebank of the BJP, as well as the youth who have never seen the Congress rule and are victims of unemployment.
The biggest challenge for the Congress vis-à-vis the BJP is its grassroots network that can mobilize the voters on the D-day and its ability to rise above factionalism in deciding the party’s tickets to contest the elections. These have been the Achilles heel of the opposition party even during the previous elections. Its leaders claim this had been sorted out even as the candidates were yet to be announced.
Despite the last 22 years of BJP’s seamless rule, including the saffron wave of 2002, the Congress has always managed to win 50 to 60 seats. Technically, it only needs 35 to 40 seats to hit the magical figure of 91 in the 182-member State Assembly.
Looks easy in the present circumstances, but well, with Narendra Modi around, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.
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*Senior journalist based in Ahmedabad. A version of this article has been published in The Parliament

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