By Saarthak Anand
With just a few months to go for the Assembly elections in Gujarat, the Indian National Congress finds itself in tatters in the state. The party shifted more than 40 of its legislators from the state to Bengaluru on July 29th, in an attempt to prevent “horse-trading” by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This comes in the face of six of its MLAs resigning from the party and joining BJP.
Defections of political leaders prior to an election are often seen as an indicator of the relative prospects of the parties in the fray. It would not be wrong, therefore, to consider the recent developments as a signal that power may well continue to elude Congress in the state.
There is another reason for these incidents to assume significance. Elections to three Rajya Sabha seats from Gujarat are scheduled for August 8th. BJP, with a strength of 121 in the 182-member state assembly is widely expected to comfortably grab two seats. However, the third one sees Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in the contest. Patel, a member of the Upper House since 1993, needs 46 votes to win. With the recent defections, the strength of the Congress comes down to 51. In what is seen as a prestige battle for both parties, the fight may go right down to the wire.
A string of missed opportunities
Two years ago, the state witnessed the start of a huge agitation by the politically influential Patidar community, traditional supporters of the BJP, for benefits in education and jobs. The BJP government, then led by Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, was down on its knees. Fate had reached out and extended its hand to Congress. The movement had implications in the local-body elections that followed. Congress performed impressively in the rural bodies, winning 21 of the 31 district panchayats and around 110 of the 230 taluka panchayats. BJP seemed to be losing its grip over the state since Narendra Modi’s departure to New Delhi. What was seen as a much-needed shot in the arm for the Congress in a state where it had been out of power for 20 years, turned out to be just one in a series of chances that went begging.
Protests were held by Gujarat farmers following the Central Government’s controversial demonetization move. Recently, textile traders in Surat went on a strike against the imposition of a five percent tax on textiles under the new Goods and Services Tax regime. Far from grabbing political mileage out of these incidents, the Congress seemed to be almost indifferent to them. Apart from some perfunctory statements by the party leaders, there was little to suggest that the party was even aware of the events unfolding in the state.
Things came to a head in the Presidential elections held on 17 July. 11 Congress MLAs from Gujarat voted in favour of Ram Nath Kovind, the NDA candidate. This was apparently done at the instance of Shankersinh Vaghela, long seen as the party’s most prominent face in the state. He had reportedly been locked in a power tussle with Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee President Bharatsinh Solanki and had been demanding a freer hand in state affairs. Solanki, on the other hand, preferred to stick to traditional ways and was open to greater campaign management by Rahul Gandhi. In an effort to highlight his frustration with the party brass, Vaghela ‘unfollowed’ a host of party leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, on Twitter in May. The day following the Presidential election, Vaghela, during a ceremony to celebrate his birthday, bid adieu to the Congress.
Congress no match for saffron?
Gujarat seems set to join the ever-expanding list of states that Congress has ‘gifted’ to the saffron party. BJP bulldozed its way into forming governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Manipur only because Congress was caught napping. Congress let Himanta Biswa Sarma, its master strategist in Assam, go to BJP. This resulted in BJP forming its first government in the state, eventually opening the floodgates to the North-East.
The walls are caving in fast for Congress. It can no longer afford to be laid back when faced with such an active and ruthless competitor. It needs to revitalise its grassroots organisation so that it can have a connection with the masses, and take advantage of popular movements. Political dominance is built with a strong presence on the ground. Mere cries for “secularism” would only boomerang to hurt Congress. It must rise above playing catch-up to BJP’s moves, and begin to dominate the political discourse.
Featured Picture Source: Flickr
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