On Friday, some 25 leaders of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) met Rahul Gandhi in Delhi. They included four former PCC chiefs, one woman (the Rajya Sabha MP Amee Yagnik), and one Muslim (the MLA Gyasuddin Shaikh). This was the first such representation from Gujarat to discuss leadership issues. Gujarat votes in Assembly elections next year.
The party, which has seen its vote share improving over the years, is struggling with organisational issues. The posts of GPCC president and Leader of Opposition have been vacant since March when Amit Chavda and Paresh Dhanani respectively resigned, following the party’s rout in local body elections. The current number of Congress MLAs is 65, down from 77 in 2017, with several having defected ahead of Rajya Sabha elections in 2020.
In the over 26 years that the Congress has been out of power, the party has retained a dedicated set of voters, but has not been able to swing any new voters its way, nor has is it been open to any new ideas or faces. For instance, in spite of winning 77 of the 182 seats in 2017, largely credited to the disaffection among Patidars on account of the state-wide quota agitation led by Hardik Patel, the 28-year old has not been welcome in the PCC since he joined the party in 2019.
Gujarat has been ruled by the BJP since 1995, except for a break in 1997-98 when Shankersinh Vaghela rebelled to launch his party and form a government with the backing of the Congress. But the elections that followed in 1998 indicated no room for a third force with Vaghela’s party winning just four seats. BJP won 117 seats and the Congress 53, polling 35.2 per cent in the seats it contested. This was the pre-Narendra Modi era.
Over the years, in the Modi era, after the BJP won its highest number of seats at 127 in 2002, in elections that followed the communal riots post the Godhra train burning, its seat share has fallen from 69.78 per cent in 2002, to 54.4 per cent in 2017, while the Congress’s went up from 28.2 per cent to 42.31 per cent. This, coupled with a higher turnout, clearly suggests anti-incumbency.
The 2017 election was held at a difficult time for the Congress. With four months to go, Leader of Opposition Vaghela walked out of the party, with six other MLAs following him, some joining the BJP days ahead of a crucial Rajya Sabha election.
Yet the Congress did well, owing largely to the churning building up in the state itself. There was disaffection in the BJP’s main constituency – the Patidars – manifested in the state-wide agitation for quota led by Hardik Patel.
In 2016, the public flogging of Dalits in Una saw ripples across the country and gave rise to Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani who went on to win as independent MLA with the backing of the Congress in 2017. In addition to there was distress among farmers because of erratic rains and failed crops, coupled with nationwide anger among certain sections of traders caused by demonetisation and the teething issues in the GST regime.
Notwithstanding the pandemic and the criticism about its mishandling, the migrant crisis and the economic losses due to the lockdown, the BJP quickly covered lost ground to post a resounding victory in the local self-government bodies’ elections in February this year. The Congress was largely clueless after Sonia Gandhi’s political adviser Ahmed Patel, a Rajya Sabha MP and the man seen as the party’s trouble-shooter and strategist, died of Covid 19 some four months before the elections.
The BJP, on the other hand, conducted a few experiments with the electorate using the local elections as a dry run. It appointed C R Paatil, a Surat-based MP with roots in Maharashtra, as the state unit chief who announced a target of winning all 182 seats in 2022. The BJP parliamentary board then decided not to give any tickets to candidates who had done three terms, and who were over age 60, in the local body polls, and not to appoint more members from a family in posts in the party organisation. The formula worked, and the party, braver with its victory, went ahead and replaced the entire Vijay Rupani government last month, bringing in a dark horse Bhupendra Patel as Chief Minister and a team of fresh faces. Although the move came as a shock to some sections of the BJP, sources said the party had been working on it for three months before the announcement. Rebellion had preceded the move, with some ministers unwilling to let go of their positions and their supporters holding protests, but all that was contained.
In contrast, in Punjab which goes to polls soon, the tensions continue after the Congress replaced Amarinder Singh as CM. The situation in Congress-ruled Chhattisgarh, too, continues to be fluid.
In 1985, the Congress won 149 of the 182 seats under the leadership of the late CM Madhavsinh Solanki. The BJP has targeted breaking this record in 2022, and begun working on an electorate that is young and has never seen a Congress government in Gujarat. Solanki was known to have used the grouping of the KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim) to win elections, isolating the upper castes like the Patels (Patidars). The BJP became a welcome option for the Patidars, and Gujarat became a successful laboratory for its Hindutva politics. The Congress, which largely relied on its traditional vote banks, lost ground as it had nothing new to offer. Modi’s taking charge as Chief Minister in 2001 only made the BJP stronger as it was seen as a party willing to take risks and experiment, mirroring the enterprising nature of its electorate.
Congress leaders say the party’s biggest dilemma today is “Who is the Congress party for? Is it for Dalits, for Muslims, for the youth? For tribals?” And they have no answers as all these core constituencies have got fragmented. The induction of Hardik into the Congress may, in a way, be compared to when Vaghela merged his new party with the Congress in 1999; he was the first with roots in the RSS to be appointed GPCC chief. While the party did badly in the Assembly elections, under his leadership, Congress did well in the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 and 2009, when the UPA was in power at the Centre. But in 2014 and 2019, the party did not win a single seat in Lok Sabha from Gujarat.
But Vaghela remained unacceptable to the local leadership in Gujarat, as has Hardik. Rahul’s bringing in Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar may be a sound move, but the local party unit has to back it to succeed. The voting pattern in the local elections, where AAP and Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM won seats in Patidar- and Muslim-dominated constituencies, also indicates space being made for a third force, by nudging out the Congress.
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