By Saarthak Anand
Following its success in this month’s Rajya Sabha polls from the state, the Indian National Congress is planning a mega opposition rally in Gujarat on September 1. With the gathering of “like-minded” parties in Valsad district, Congress will kick off its campaign for the Assembly elections scheduled for November-December this year. The party has been out of power in the state for twenty-two years.
The flailing grip of BJP
The Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) has ruled Gujarat for twenty years, most of it under Chief Minister Narendra Modi, strengthening its hold with every successive election. The state, however, started slipping from its hand as soon as Modi left for New Delhi in 2014, with his successor Anandiben Patel proving to be an incompetent bet when it came to filling Modi’s shoes. Things came to a head in 2015, when the Patidar community – traditional supporters of the BJP – turned against the party by launching an agitation under the young Hardik Patel, demanding Other Backward Class (OBC) status. In August last year, Anandiben resigned from the CM’s chair and was replaced by the non-Patidar Vijay Rupani. This was followed by Dalit demonstrations led by Jignesh Mevani. More recently, textile traders in Surat went on strike due to the imposition of a 5 percent tax on textiles under the new Goods and Services (GST) regime.
The hand losing its touch?
Congress has traditionally banked on a KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) support base in the state, while the Patidars have rallied behind the BJP ever since Keshubhai Patel’s ascent in the 1990s. Recent political developments, however, have ensured that neither of the two major parties can take their respective voter bases for granted. While the Patidars displayed unprecedented hostility towards the BJP during their protests, defections by Congress legislators last month robbed the grand old party of some of its most well-known faces. One of those jumping ship was Chhanabhai Chaudhary, a popular tribal leader from South Gujarat. Three of the other defecting MLAs belonged to the Kshatriya community, among them was Ramsinh Parmar, Chairman of Amul, a dairy cooperative based in Anand.
The hardest blow to the party, however, was dealt by former CM Shankersinh Vaghela, a Durbari Kshatriya. The most vocal Congress leader in the state, Vaghela had been demanding a freer hand in Gujarat affairs. He made his displeasure known during the Presidential election in July, when eleven Congress MLAs, led by him, broke ranks and voted in favour of the NDA candidate. The following day, during an event, to celebrate his birthday, the former RSS worker resigned from the Congress.
BJP still has the upper hand
The rebellions in the Congress camp have boosted the BJP’s prospects, but it is still much more vulnerable than it ever was under Modi. With both Modi and Amit Shah in the capital, Congress has to take on a weaker state BJP leadership. Vijay Rupani is no match for Narendra Modi’s charisma. Moreover, Ahmed Patel’s victory in the Rajya Sabha election has come as a shot in the arm for the party, which, for once, has been able to outfox the BJP’s shrewd political manoeuvring.
The saffron party, however, is well-prepared for what it sees as a prestige battle. It realises the symbolic importance of victory in the state, home to the PM as well as the party president. Shah has been camping in Gujarat regularly, announcing an ambitious “Mission 150” – a target of winning 150 seats in the 182-member state assembly. The nationwide disarray of the Congress, on the other hand, is rubbing off on its Gujarat unit. Plagued by factionalism and, with Vaghela’s exit, the lack of a popular face, the party has been late to embark upon the campaign trail.
Unless the Congress sets its house in order soon, power in the state may continue to elude its grasp, although BJP is likely to fall short of achieving the “Mission 150”. Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that political developments in the last two years have set the stage for the most evenhanded and interesting contest Gujarat has seen in recent memory.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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