It's surprising Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has sought to skip Gujarat where he had his best stint in 2017. Ruling BJP sees newcomer AAP as bigger threat than the traditional opposition party.

Graphs comparing Congress and BJP's performance in past assembly elections in Gujarat. (Image: Network18 Creative)

Gujarat Elections 2022: Just when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ entered the BJP-ruled Karnataka last week, the party’s yet another Gujarat MLA called it quits, ahead of the state assembly elections slated to be held in December. Harshad Ribadiya became the 17th legislator to quit since 2017. He has joined the BJP, and nobody in the Congress or the BJP will be surprised if more MLAs join the ruling party when Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes calling on one more of his frequent tours to Gujarat on Sunday, as is being speculated.

But yes, most Congressmen at all levels in Gujarat are surprised that Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra that appears to have received enormous response so far will skip Gujarat. Little gainsaying that BJP obviously says the Congress is scared of a humiliating loss and new-entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) says the main opposition party is not in the picture.

The Congress in Gujarat continues to be a leaderless, rudderless, directionless dispensation while most sitting legislators, who are still there with the party, have launched their own campaigns in their constituencies in the belief they would be fielded in the elections. Some others have started their public connect travelling through villages in the hope that they would be contesting.

The party’s high command — read Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Priyanka — has almost left the Gujarat unit of their party to fend for themselves.

There is Ashok Gehlot, who has been appointed observer for the Congress’ State campaign, while his lieutenant Raghu Sharma, the Rajasthan health minister, is the AICC in-charge of Gujarat affairs, but both are now mired in the quagmire of sordid politicking in their home state. Obviously, the attention is more towards Rajasthan and less towards neighbour Gujarat.

For instance, Gehlot had announced in Gujarat that the Congress party’s first list of candidates would be declared by mid-September. Now, it doesn’t seem likely before October-end, until after the party gets the new national president.

While the AAP has declared as many as 41 candidates when the elections are yet to be declared, the Congress has just taken its first baby step in screening possible contestants at the state-level before the shortlisted names reach the high command – which may be Mallikarjun Kharge, who is set to be the party chief on October 19. This simply means the complete list of Congress candidates for the Gujarat elections won’t be announced until at least the first week of November, while the elections may be held in December first week or even earlier.

Squandering Opportunity, The Congress Way

But still, the story is not so much that the Congress is taking time in finalising their candidates, nor that there is factionalism within — which existed even when the party won with a still unbroken record of 149 out of 182 seats in 1985 or in 1980 when it had 139 MLAs.

The underlying story is that the Congress, especially Rahul Gandhi whose best stint was in Modi’s Gujarat during the 2017 elections, didn’t see a door of hope opening when the party posted its best performance bagging 81 seats — including an Independent Jignesh Mevani, two BTP and one NCP — despite having been out of power since 1990.

Here is how 2017 was a watershed election, which the Congress was naïve enough not to notice:

“When I was sent here (Gujarat), I cursed my luck like I was thrown into a sinking ship. Within days, I realised if there’s an opportunity for the revival of Congress, it is through Gujarat.” As I looked at him with cynicism, he went on: “You won’t believe me now but you will see.” This was Rajeev Satav, All India Congress Committee’s co-incharge for Gujarat affairs ahead of the 2017 state assembly elections, telling me in a private conversation.

Satav assisted Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who was AICC’s Gujarat affairs in-charge during the 2017 polls when the BJP, ruling the state for close to 25 years, was for the first time reduced to a double-digit 99 seats — or just seven seats more than a sure defeat in a 182-member House where 92 seats are required for a simple majority.

Satav, who died young at 46 last year following some complications after his recovery from Covid-19, had spotted the opportunity for the Congress early on. But his party, or Rahul Gandhi, who became the Congress president soon after, did not. As the Saurashtra affairs in-charge under Gehlot, Satav’s selection of candidates ensured that the Congress got the maximum 30 seats out of 54 in that region. It had half that number earlier.

Today, when the party braces for the 2022 elections less than two months from now, it doesn’t have Sonia Gandhi’s political adviser Ahmed Patel, who also succumbed to Covid-19 complications, nor Satav. It does have Ashok Gehlot in the same role and Raghu Sharma in Satav’s role, but both are stuck in their own state.

The Congress in Gujarat, as of now, resembles a regional dispensation with its own legendary groupism and each leader fighting his own battle. In fact, it is worse since regional parties have all the powers to decide there and then, while they don’t have that luxury in this case.

Gujarat 2017 And Gujarat 2022

What was it in 2017 that raised the long-term hopes of the Congress in Gujarat? There were three key takeaways from that election, which is what made it a watershed moment. One, it was for the first time that a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family spent three days each in four regions of Gujarat and addressed each region according to the issues they faced. Earlier, Sonia, Rajiv Gandhi or Indira Gandhi or others would address a couple of rallies and fly off. Rahul not only stayed and interacted freely with the crowds — something he has been doing during his Bharat Jodo Yatra — but also ate and had tea at nondescript highway dhabas or small restaurants in towns.

Two, the three musketeers, Hardik Patel (a Patidar), Alpesh Thakor (an OBC) and Jignesh Mevani (a Dalit), came on a common platform. They spoke on the same issues of increasing unemployment while more industries kept on investing in the state, expensive education with more emphasis on private institutions in the guise of public-private-partnership and deteriorating health infrastructure giving way to flourishing private healthcare facilities, crony capitalism and shrinking land for agriculture, usurping of lands of tribals etc.

Hardik’s Patidar agitation became only the provocation but it was broadened to cover other issues and this was why hordes of youngsters from all communities and religions flocked to his public meetings.

Three, this was unprecedented in Gujarat that a Patidar (Patel), an OBC and a Dalit, who would always be at loggerheads socially and economically, came together to speak in the same voice. They, along with Rahul Gandhi, became a unified force to attack Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies — and it worked. What also helped was that the election was held in the backdrop of demonetisation and the introduction of GST coming back to back just a year ago.

There were similar crowds, along with hundreds of farmers, small traders and small industrialists, at Rahul’s rallies where he spoke the same things. Gandhi even took his rhetoric to the days of the Nehruvian welfare state, before the economic reforms launched by then PM Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh.

Rahul drove his discourse all the way to the extreme left when he went hammer and tongs after a “handful of industrialists like the Ambanis and the Adanis, for whom all rules are bent at the cost of farmers without generating any employment for the land-losers and the poor”.

During all these, there was also the undercurrent of restlessness among large sections of the state government employees over various issues of pay hike and other working conditions. There was greater frustration among the outsourced temporary staff since they had continued to remain temporary getting a fixed pay for years on end though they served like full-time employees.

Lakhs of youth were angry that despite having taken exams or delaying them, several thousand vacancies were not being filled while they kept on waiting. All this has emerged more fiercely this time with one-year-old Gujarat CM Bhupendra Patel facing some 30 major and small agitations, mostly by the government staff.

The same issues that were raised in 2017 are now staring at the ruling BJP in a worse form than earlier, along with unbearable price rise and farmers not getting their due along with allegations of corruption in the implementation of crop insurance while also facing power shortages.

However, except two rallies of Rahul Gandhi this year, including one where he promised freebies almost on the same things that AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal had “guaranteed” several months ago. Throwing in new promises, Kejriwal has been visiting Gujarat every week during the last two months and interacting with a variety of sections of voters — something that Rahul did extensively during his 2017 campaign.

As of now, it would seem that the Congress has already conceded defeat in Gujarat in their preoccupation with the national presidential election while the party high command’s die-hard loyalist, Ashok Gehlot, who was the chosen one to replace Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi to head the party, stabbed them in the back to ensure his bete noire Sachin Pilot doesn’t become the chief minister while he wears the presidential crown, full of thorns.

And Kejriwal is milking the situation to the best of his abilities, to the extent that the invincible BJP sees the newcomer as a bigger threat than the traditional opposition party.

Source: ABP Live