After yet another poor performance in urban constituencies in the recently-concluded Assembly elections cost the Congress a shot at power in Gujarat, the party has deputed senior AICC leaders to work towards establishing a “connection” with urban voters. Though the Congress improved its tally to 77 this year from 61 in 2012, the party failed to overcome BJP’s dominance on urban seats — of the 58 urban seats (where urban population is more than 50 per cent), the BJP has won 48 Assembly seats, the Congress has won remaining 10. In 2012, the BJP had won 52 urban seats while Congress had won only six urban seats. These 58 urban constituencies are mostly spread across Surat, Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Rajkot.
On the other hand, of the 124 rural seats, the BJP has won 51 (down from 63 last time) and the Congress has won 67 seats (up from 55 in 2012). Days after the results of the Assembly polls, new party president Rahul Gandhi, who spent several days in Gujarat as part of the Navsarjan poll campaign, has inducted senior AICC leaders to work on the ground to bridge the gap with urban voters.
Apart from retaining Dariyapur and Danilimda(SC) seats, the Congress had emerged victorious in Bapunagar and Jamalpur-Khadia (Ahmedabad) and also snatched one of Junagadh city’s seats which was held by the BJP. However, despite a palpable anti-incumbency against the BJP-led state government in major cities, the BJP managed a clean sweep with three seats in Rajkot, both seats in Jamnagar, two seats in Bhavnagar, all the five seats of Vadodara city and all 11 seats of Surat city.
During the campaign for the Assembly polls, the Congress had fielded its “Young Turks” like Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora and Jyotiraditya Scindia to interact with urban and young voters, hoping that some of the 52 per cent voters under the age of 40 would feel a connect with the party. Rahul had already held discussions on the issues related to demonetisation and GST in urban centres.
Congress leaders said that the results of cities, especially Surat, left the party in a shock. A senior GPCC leader said, “We were hoping to win at least seven of the 11 urban seats in Surat. Our ground report had indicated that we would win the areas where it had become difficult for BJP leaders to even step foot outside. The results of Surat were unexpected as the traders and businessmen were very disappointed by many recent decisions related to the economy taken by the BJP government at the centre. We know that if we had won some of the seats in Surat as well as a few more in Vadodara and Ahmedabad, the result would have been completely different.”
According to a party leader in Vadodara, AICC general secretary Madhusudan Mistry, who had unsuccessfully contested the 2014 Lok Sabha polls from the Vadodara constituency against Narendra Modi, has prepared a ground report of urban centres, which will be studied by Rahul and his team. Vadodara Congress senior vice-president Shailesh Amin said, “Last week, Mistry visited Vadodara and met the Congress candidates, who lost the recent polls in the city…We apprised him about the lack of connection with voters at a local level. The fault lies in the selection of candidates for the local body polls. Our tally of corporators has been ineffective in establishing a base in the cities. Though our next chance to field good candidates in civic polls will only come in 2020, we have given suggestions for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.”
Party leaders said that based on the report submitted by the AICC members to Rahul, the party will introduce internal workshops to “strengthen” ground workers in urban areas. A senior GPCC leader said, “The nature of the workshops is being decided. It will be more an interactive session as well as a practical to-do list, in order to prepare the party workers at the grassroots in urban centres. We have had a model that was in place in rural areas, where there are tangible issues related to development and administration and therefore, the voters are more discerning. Unfortunately, in urban centres, where basic civic amenities have been in place for several years, voters tend to fall for the saffron symbolism.”
Amin said that the leaders of the Congress have also suggested to the AICC team that the party needs to break its stereotypical image of being a “Muslim appeaser” in urban areas. “We have seen that urban areas, where the BJP plays its Hindutva card to stir emotions, as development issues are not on the forefront, the Congress is perceived as a party of Muslim-appeasers. This is one of the major drawbacks that the party faces in urban centres,” Amin added.