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Congress in Gujarat: Waiting for Godot

A few days back, I happened to have an informal chat with a senior Congress leader. Belonging to Gujarat, this leader has made his way to the high command, going pretty close to party president Sonia Gandhi, which he more often than not nauseatingly proclaims, not unusual for a Congressman. Yet, I found something uncommon in him. I have known him before he decided to join politics more than a decade ago. At that time, he was more of a human rights activist, running an organisation in a backward Gujarat region which fought for the sake of a neglected section. I would enjoy visiting the far-flung areas under his influence talking with workers trained by him. One may dispute his approach and ways, but his unflinching commitment to the cause of the poor seemed impressive.
I always thought, this leader's decision to enter politics was wrong, as he would have to make odd compromises. Yet, he would brush aside my suggestion as "failure to understand certain advantages of politics." He once told me frankly, "What I can now do as a politician for the target population, I could never do it in the past." For instance, in the past, he would have to wait for hours to meet a senior government official to get justice for this neglected section, but now he could pick up the phone and talk directly with the Gujarat chief secretary!
Be that as it may, during the informal meeting, which lasted for two hours, I came out satisfied -- that his commitment to the poor, despite being in politics, remains somewhat intact. He was frank and forthcoming. And he stunned me with a rather drastic conclusion about the elections to the Gujarat state assembly, scheduled for December 2012, one reason why I decided to keep his anonymity, though I know those who are in the loop would identify him. He said, "Take it from me. We are losing in Gujarat. Modi will win hands down. We have no organisation or imagination to match him. I have conveyed my views to the high command, including the very top…"
I thought what he told me wasn't anything new, that there is a near unanimous view that chief minister Narendra Modi is invincible in the state. Perhaps Modi's critics are not wrong -- Modi has successfully institutionalised his Hindutva image, especially among large sections of urban middle classes, who see him as a great defender ever since the 2002 communal riots. I am amused when some of my middle class relatives and friends tell me, without mincing words that sans Modi there can no development in Gujarat. "There is no one else, in BJP or Congress, who has his guts", they argue out endlessly.
But what this Congress leader said was quite interesting. "Gujarat is 40 per cent urban. Modi is popular among the urban middle classes, where we are extremely weak. Out of 182 assembly seats, Modi's BJP has an upper hand in 60 urban seats. The baseline for the BJP, therefore, is 60, while we start at zero. It's a fight between two incompatible contestants. For a majority, we would have to win at least two-thirds of the rest of the non-urban seats, which is a very tall order, considering the fact that in Gujarat those who live in urban areas have strong rural links", he said.He further stretched his argument. "Remember the days when the poor would think Congress as their party? This image is getting dimmer with every passing day in Gujarat, like elsewhere. Now, our leaders in Gujarat rarely go to slums to take up fight for them. They were not seen taking up the leadership when the slum dwellers were being displaced under the Sabarmati riverfront project in Ahmedabad. In fact, they have no cadres to work among the poorer sections. Even today poor in urban Gujarat are willing to believe that the Congress is their party, of Dalits and OBCs, which have been our traditional voters. But we have nobody to mobilise them or take up their issues", he said.
In fact, he regretted, the current effort is to divide seat allotment in the forthcoming elections between two influential communities of Gujarat -- Patels and Rajputs. His argument ran on following lines: The Patel leaders in the party, like Siddharth Patel and Narhari Amin, are out to convince the high command that the Patels are unhappy with Modi and that they would vote Congress. They cite the instance of ex-CM Keshubhai Patel's open rebellion against Modi in Patels' community meetings to prove their point. As for the Rajputs, leaders like Shaktisinh Gohil and Shankarsinh Vaghela believe they would mobilise the OBCs who are descendents of the foot soldiers prior to independence -- Thakores and Kolis.
"There is no strategy focused on the urban poor. If you do not take up the problems the urban poor face, be it housing, wages, basic infrastructure facilities like bijli, sadak, pani, who would back you?", he wondered, adding, "Comfort level of our leaders is very high. There is a leader who would play cards till late in the night in clubs and switch on mobile late in the morning. Another leader, an ex-party president, would run the party sitting from the enterprise office he owns in Ahmedabad." As for Muslims, they may vote Congress, but they will get Congress just about half-a-dozen seats in urban areas. Meanwhile, the Congress leader said, the prospective Congress candidates willing to be MLAs in the urban areas are living in a strange illusion. "They think, Rahulji will come to campaign in Gujarat, wave a magic wand, and things will change. They haven't learnt any lesson from what happened in Uttar Pradesh. If you don't do any grassroots work with poorer sections, you will not succeed", he insisted.


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