Author: KG Suresh
Instead of engaging in a war of personalities with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the Congress must target issues that can connect with the people. The problem is: The party does not have any State leader of stature to credibly raise those matters
When the Congress chief in Gujarat, Arjun Modhwadia, indirectly referred to Chief Minister Narendra Modi as a monkey at an election rally in Junagadh recently, he only reflected one of the basic shortcomings the party’s state unit is facing —bankruptcy of ideas.
The State party president does not seem to have learned any lesson from national president Sonia Gandhi’s “maut ke saudagar” (merchants of death) remark, which immensely contributed to Mr Modi’s kitty last time. The living in denial continues. Instead of picking holes in the Gujarat Model of Development and focussing on the chinks in the administration, the Congress has made the Gujarat election an exclusive Modi versus Others affair, in the process lending a larger than life profile to the Gujarat strongman.
On Ms Gandhi’s remarks, the Congress should know the party itself benefited in the 2004 general election to a great extent due to the personalised attack mounted on her by the then ruling combine. If not stupid, it is certainly not wise to be an iconoclast in a nation of hero worshippers.
Save for some token rallies by its central leaders, the Congress campaign in Gujarat is a muted affair compared to the brouhaha witnessed during the Assembly elections in Bihar and later in Uttar Pradesh.
Unlike the two crucial northern states, where the Congress has virtually been reduced to a single digit or a little more, and despite the Modi magic, the party still has a respectable 54 seats in the State Assembly and 11 MPs in the Lok Sabha. In the 2007 election, it lost about 35 seats by margins ranging from 17 to 5000. Yet, the party apparently seems to view Gujarat as a lost case.
Apart from bankruptcy of ideas and the absence of a clear-cut strategy to counter the Modi phenomenon, the party also suffers from a leadership crisis. The joke in the State unit is that even a taluka panchayat-level office-bearer cannot be appointed without the consent of the Congress high command. There is increasing resentment over the fact that Mr Ahmed Patel, political secretary to the Congress president, is remote-controlling the affairs of the party from New Delhi. While Mr Patel himself is considered as a committed Congressman, party workers feel the coterie surrounding him is giving all the wrong advice regarding affairs of the State.
The fact also remains that the party needs an equally charismatic face to counter Mr Modi. Neither Mr Modhwadia nor State legislature party leader Shaktisinh Gohil fits the bill. The only face that has both credibility and competence to take the incumbent Government head on is Mr Shankersinh Vaghela, who is an old BJP hand. But then the problem is the lack of trust the party has in this former saffronite. There is a sizeable section within the party which feels Mr Vaghela should have been given a free hand and projected as the chief ministerial candidate. Otherwise, an encore of the Uttar Pradesh blitzkrieg without projecting an alternative leader is a definite possibility.
It is also important that the Congress strategists understand the history of the State, the psyche of the Gujarati people and the concerns and aspirations of the different section of the State’s populace. It was the Congress under the leadership of Madhav Sinh Solanki, which ushered in the KHAAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Ahir and Muslim) strategy decades back. While this factor did help the party initially, its consequences have led to the present sorry state of affairs for the party. The alleged exploitation with even the police often refusing to lodge FIRs against culprits in criminal cases led to the consolidation of the influential Patel community, constituting almost 27 per cent of the population, against the Congress.
The Patels not only found themselves neglected but also discriminated against. As in the case of the Lingayats in Karnataka, the BJP under Mr Keshubhai Patel got a readymade constituency without making much of an effort. Notwithstanding the Congress’s efforts to woo them in the recent past, there is a strong view that the revival of the Congress would also herald the return of lawlessness against the Patel community.
While playing to the galleries at the Centre, the Congress may have found it convenient to repeatedly attack the BJP on the communal issue. But the fact also remains that Gujarat has a history of polarisation since time immemorial. Right from the days of the invasion of Somnath, the Gujarati Hindu has always been aggressive about his identity. In fact, there is no other Sate which can boast of either so much vegetarianism or spiritual gurus, thanks to the deep influences of Vaishnavism and Jainism. The State has had a dubious history of communal clashes much before the 2002 violence. Thus, the ‘minority appeasement’ strategies that have been successfully applied in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have backfired in Gujarat.
Though Mr Modi has been targeted for looking the other way during the post-Godhra violence, the fact also remains that a large section of Gujaratis, who are pre-dominantly into business, credit him for establishing and sustaining an atmosphere of peace conducive for business in the State, post-2002. This is not to condone any acts of omission or commission, but it is a reality that since 2002, the State has not witnessed a single communal incident, unlike many other States where such violence has been on the rise.
In fact, local and by-elections indicate that a sizeable 10 per cent of the Muslim population have shifted their loyalties to the BJP. They include the peace-loving business communities such as the Bohras, the Khojas and even the Shias.
While the Congress continues to raise the issue of 2002 violence, of late it seems to have realised that, while this may be appreciated by the ‘secular’ audience outside the State, in Gujarat it will do well to focus on developmental issues. This has apparently prompted the party to come up with the 12-point Gujarat People Development Vision 2012, which promises among other things free laptops to students after class 12, zero slums, housing for women, appointment of Lokayukta, reservation in private schools, a minority commission and finance board etc among others. However, the strategy is not working in the absence of a grassroot level cadre to disseminate the message to the people. No serious attempt has been made to revive the organisation in the State.
Even as the BJP mascot is boosting his strength through strategic moves, including efforts to win over critics such as Praveen Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and indirect campaigns in his support by spiritual gurus including Baba Ramdev, the Congress is hoping to ride piggyback on dissidents such as Mr Keshubhai Patel — but who may instead eat into the party’s own support base.
The Congress would perform better if it were to focus on developmental concerns such as the partial implementation of the much-hyped Narmada Canal projects, touted as the State’s lifeline, the emerging real estate mafia, the rampant and unscrupulous privatisation of education, the declining health and other development indices, the non-execution of majority of MoUs signed during the Vibrant Gujarat summits et al. But the party is indulging in monkey business. And monkeys fetch peanuts, not votes.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Delhi)