From lasting impact of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, to long-distance monitoring, to focused campaign by party leaders, the Congress is trying to put a positive spin on the fact that Rahul Gandhi is so far absent from the high-stakes Gujarat campaign.
The state unit has no clear idea if that might change, with some leaders talking tentatively of two visits by Rahul, one on November 22, a week to go for campaigning to end for the first phase polling in 89 seats on December 1, and another before the second phase on December 5.
This is quite a departure from the high-octane campaign in 2017 when Rahul had addressed nearly 40 meetings, while making several temple visits, and launched a Navsarjan Yatra, which covered the length and breadth of Gujarat in a bus. The party’s tally of 77 seats had been its highest since 1990 in the state, with the BJP’s 99 its lowest.
Congress leaders argue that it is best Rahul is not “distracted” from the Bharat Jodo Yatra, and remind that he did not campaign in Himachal Pradesh either. However, in Himachal, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had taken charge of the party campaign.
Vadra was last in Gujarat in February 2019 when the Congress Working Committee met in Ahmedabad, and has never addressed a rally in the state. A Congress leader says, “When Rahulji is campaigning, there is no point in also calling her. Both are our star campaigners. She comes when Rahulji is unable to, like in Himachal.”
Rahul’s absence coincides with the loss of senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel, the eyes and ears of the high command in Gujarat, who died of Covid-19 in 2020.
AICC general secretary in-charge of Gujarat Raghu Sharma told The Indian Express that while Rahul might not be present in the state, he is constantly “monitoring what the party is doing in Gujarat”. “We are making a plan for his meetings, but it is wrong to say he is absent. He held meetings in Dwarka, Dahod and on the Sabarmati Riverfront as recently as September,” Sharma says.
Party leaders argue that the comparison with 2017 is also wrong as, at the time, Rahul was the vice-president of the party.
A core committee member of the Gujarat Congress and AICC delegate, Gaurav Pandya, says there is another way to look at this. “Everybody is on the field campaigning. Had Rahulji come, the leaders who are also candidates would have had to abandon their campaign and come to his meetings, which would be damaging (for them).”
Besides, says Pandya, “His (Rahul’s) Bharat Jodo Yatra is having an indirect impact on our campaign. It has got the Congress worker in the smallest of villages talking about it and they feel that ‘we should complement it’… The Bharat Jodo Yatra was planned with a national perspective.”
Pandya acknowledges, though, that Rahul’s intensive campaign of 2017 “did build a connect and benefit the Congress, apart from the social movement that got the Patidars connected (to the party)”.
The absence of the Gandhis is expected to hurt the party most in the tribal areas, which have been its stronghold and where the family still has a following. Congress leaders are also despondent that the “disinterest” comes at a time when the Aam Aadmi Party is making an aggressive bid in Gujarat, and is expected to cut into the party’s votes.
Of the 27 ST reserved seats in Gujarat, the Congress had won 17 in 2017, of whom five MLAs have since joined the BJP. Two of them quit after the Adivasi Adhikar Yatra by the Congress in May to consolidate its tribal vote.
Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi says the launch of the Adivasi yatra by Rahul in Dahod has been followed up by a “door-to-door campaign in tribal areas talking about what the party will do to protect their rights to jal, jungle, jameen”.
Congress leaders claim that in these areas, AAP has dented the Bharatiya Tribal Party more, while the BJP was trying to “lure its tribal MLAs”. “The appointment of Droupadi Murmu as President is also being used by the party to influence tribals,” says a leader.
Rahul’s last visit to Gujarat was on September 5 when, two days to go for the launch of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, he addressed a rally on the Sabarmati Riverfront, unveiling a broad manifesto of thte party, promising Rs 4 lakh as compensation to families of those who succumbed to Covid-19, farm loan waiver of up to Rs 3 lakh, free electricity for households up to 300 units etc. These promises are part of the Congress’s manifesto released recently.
At the Dahod rally in May, Rahul had shared the stage with then working president Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani. Hardik, the face of the Patidar agitation, had left the Congress soon after to join the BJP.
Before that, in February, Rahul addressed a Chintan Shivir of the Congress in Dwarka, where the strategy for the elections was discussed. In his address on Day 2, he told party leaders to come up with a vision for Gujarat and “project 25 people who would transform that vision into reality”.
Seeking to put its house in order, meanwhile, the AICC Monday announced a team of zonal observers, including Mukul Wasnik, Mohan Prakash, Prithviraj Chavan, B K Hariprasad and K H Muniyappa. Barring Muniyappa, the rest have been in-charge of Gujarat at some point.
The party also announced 32 ‘Lok Sabha Observers’ in charge of the 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat and five ‘General Observers’.
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