In December last year at a public rally in Mehsana, a district where the local Patidars were angry with the BJP and a month after demonetisation, Rahul Gandhi read out a list of bribery allegations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi related to the Sahara and Birla group of companies. The script had already been read out by the Aam Aadmi Party so it did not seem to strike a chord with the north Gujarati crowd, notwithstanding Rahul’s visit to Umiya Mata temple which is the reigning deity of the Kadva Patidars.
Nine months later, on a road show in Saurashtra, riding a blue bus to launch his Navsarjan Gujarat (Renaissance Gujarat) yatra, the Congress vice president was walking in a different Gujarat. At the peak of the Navratri festival, traders were crying hoarse over demonetisation and GST, farmers over produce not sold, and heavy rains damaging crops, roads, and other infrastructure.
Gandhi’s itinerary, meticulously planned, included visits to several temples, including a walk up 600 steps to the Chotila hill to offer prayers at the Chamunda hill, a pilgrimage spot on the bucket list of every Kathiawadi, the Khodaldham temple – the reigning deity of Leuva Patidars–and the Dwarkadheesh temple.
Making pit stops along the way, drinking chai at a party worker’s home, Gandhi was swamped by people who wanted to talk to him, take selfies and even laugh at his one-liners. By the second leg of his tour in central Gujarat which ended on Wednesday, the BJP had galvanized its publicity machinery to pick faults in Rahul’s speeches.
Covering approximately 800 km across central Gujarat districts of Kheda, Anand, Vadodara, Chhota Udepur, Dahod and the Panchmahals, stopping for interactions and public meetings at 28 strategic pit stops along the route, Gandhi chose his words carefully as he launched a sustained and unsparing onslaught on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the BJP.
Vists to Santram Mandir in Nadiad, Ranchhod Mandir in Petlad, Kabir Mandir in Dahod and Bhathiji Maharaj temple in Fagvel in Kheda and feeding a cow, were part of his second leg itinerary.
Taking a leaf from his grandmother and late prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had famously called herself the ‘bahu of Gujarat”, Rahul gave himself the sobriquet of ‘Son of Gujarat’, and left behind an emotionally charged narrative, that not only set the Gujaratis thinking but also earned him a standing ovation, when he chose to counter BJP’s `Congress-mukt Bharat’ rhetoric with, `I would never wish for the annihilation of the BJP’.
The audience consisting mostly of young boys and girls, heard him in rapt attention and responded to his rhetorical questions in a chorus. And, Gandhi interacted with them and proclaimed that “There is an undercurrent against Modi, Amit Shah and the BJP here in Gujarat.”
His speeches about women not seen in shorts in RSS shakhas, touched a raw nerve, provoking the RSS top brass to talk about its overshadowed women’s wing, the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti, and for the BJP to attack Rahul on his “foreign thinking”. While BJP leaders like Amit Shah spoke of Gandhi’s “Italian glasses”, the Gandhi scion spoke of his mother and her Italian roots and stressed on the competition posed by China in the sphere of generating employment.
Not reading from written scripts, this Rahul on Modi’s turf was not the faraway leader from Delhi who had come seeking votes for the upcoming election. Consciously avoiding the desperation of a party that had been out of power in Gujarat for over two decades, Rahul was directing the political narrative to blend with the chatter in the village and town nukkads and making it personal: “Meri pitai kar-kar ke unhone meri aankhen khol di” (Their relentless attacks have opened my eyes), he said at a gathering in Vadodara, to loud applause from a crowd where BJP unit members were present in their “personal capacities”. It was a gathering of invited businessmen, some of whom are primary party members of BJP.
Sample his concluding address in Fagvel, an OBC stronghold that Modi had picked in 2002 to launch the Gaurav Yatra. Rahul asked the audience — a mix of tribals and OBCs, “Have you seen a single Nano on the street in the last six months? That money (given to Tata) was yours, the land was yours, the water was yours, the electricity was yours”, he declaimed to a frenzied crowd that agreed with him.
Between Gandhi’s first tour leg in Saurashtra and second in central Gujarat, Modi also walked part of the same trail to Dwarkadheesh and Chotila showering goodies on Gujarat.
Throughout his yatra, Gandhi left no opportunity to leverage the alleged recent controversy surrounding Amit Shah’s son. At an interaction with university students in Vadodara, he addressed Jay Shah as the “icon of Start-Up India programme announced by Modiji”.
The yatra has done some good to the Congress party which has seen a series of defections to the BJP since the Rajya Sabha elections in August. For one, the rousing welcome Gandhi’s blue bus received across central Gujarat has rekindled the morale of the party cadre. At several places along the route, the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) came out in open support and felicitated the Congress President-in-waiting. Also, Rahul’s interactions have brought to the fore the visible anti-incumbency in Gujarat among rural communities who clutched at his outstretched hand of political assurances.
For a party plagued with infighting and rebellions, Rahul’s witty one-liners will translate into votes, only if the Congress manages to capture and reflect the aspirations of the voters at the grassroots.