Sitting in a chair by the roadside in front of his workshop, the man, in his 50s, reluctantly opened up, quickly listing the woes besetting people: price rise, lack of jobs, apathy of political leaders etc. He refused to disclose his name. “Call me Bharat,” he said. His assistant was equally guarded, saying “I am Indian” when asked about his name.
A few kilometres away, Hitesh who runs a tea shop in the heart of Viramgam town said it was “fear” that made people hesitant to speak out. He also flagged high prices of daily essentials as a major concern.
But Hitesh and his neighbour Natwar Singh, a pesticide shop owner, attributed the situation to Gujarat’s “one-sided political scene”. “There’s no Opposition, so there’s not much to hope from the current Assembly polls too. The Congress has ditched those who pinned their hopes on it,” said Singh.
Like Hitesh and Singh, several locals see the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Gujarat polls fray as a “positive sign”. “We don’t know how AAP is going to do. But we will have an Opposition, we hope,” Singh said.
The Viramgam Assembly constituency illustrates to a degree the state of affairs prevailing in the Congress, the principal Opposition, in Gujarat. The party got 39 per cent votes in this seat in the 2012 Assembly polls and 42 per cent in the 2017 polls, winning it both times. Although it had lost the seat to the BJP in 2007, the party had garnered 44.32 percent votes even then. But like many other constituencies across the state this time, there does not seem to be any enthusiasm in the Congress camp in Viramgam too.
“Congress does not have a strong leader, nor does it have outreach programmes. The party is like it does not want to even fight elections,” Sadat, a shop worker, said.
Many local voters, cutting across caste and religious lines, said the BJP government under Narendra Modi had brought in development. “Modi opened up the state for industries, roads were built, farmers started getting water for irrigation,” Vijaybhai Rawal, a shopkeeper, said.
But what surprised voters like Sadat is the “way the Congress has given up this time” despite the support it enjoys among minorities and backward communities.
The Congress had bagged 149 of the state’s total 182 seats in the 1985 polls in the wave following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, but went on to face a series of setbacks subsequently.
In the 2017 polls, when it won 77 seats, the Congress had made moves to take advantage of the churning roiling the state due to the disenchantment of the Patidar community, farmers as well as traders towards the ruling BJP. The party had then gone all out to take on the BJP, deputing its then general secretary Ashok Gehlot to the state well in advance and deploying significant resources in its campaigning. Rahul Gandhi had launched a major outreach, Navsarjan Yatra, crisscrossing the state, reaching out to various sections, meeting students, professionals, farmers, traders and religious leaders. Rahul had then also visited all major temples in the state to woo the Hindu voters.
The Congress had then also roped in a number of young, high-profile leaders including Hardik Patel, who led the Patel quota agitation, OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, who emerged as firerebrand leaders representing their communities and projecting themselves as Rahul’s lieutenants. The state BJP dispensation was also witnessing a vacuum after Modi’s switch to New Delhi to take charge as the Prime Minister.
The grand old party, however, again started faltering within months after the polls — which the BJP clinched with a sharply reduced majority (99 seats) — with its MLAs starting to defect to the ruling party. In the last five years, 19 Congress MLAs have defected to the BJP.
The Congress does not have a face for the upcoming polls. Bharatsinh Solanki, one of its prominent leaders, is embroiled in a string of controversies. The demise of both Ahmed Patel and Rajiv Satav, who played key roles during the last elections, has severely hurt the party. Gehlot, the Congress in-charge for the polls, is busy grappling with his arch party rival, Sachin Pilot, in Rajasthan. “We don’t have enough resources or people to put up a show like the BJP here,” said a senior state party leader.
Hardik Patel, 29, who walked out of the Congress despite being its state working president to join the BJP a few months ago, is now contesting the election from Viramgam on the saffron party’s ticket. “The BJP has a strong organisation, the network is robust, the style of working is very different. There is enthusiasm among people for PM Modi and the party knows how to translate it into votes,” he said.
Overseeing the preparation for welcoming Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath who was to address a rally to campaign for him, Hardik sought to list some of the reasons behind the Congress’s fall, alleging “Congress leaders kept attacking the Gujaratis – its leaders were singling out Gujarati industrialists to criticise them. They opposed Ram Mandir construction, they opposed the abrogation of Article 370… Gujaratis did not appreciate, it gave the impression that the party is anti-Gujarati.”
Suresh Patel, who claims he was a “loyal and selfless worker” for the Congress for decades before he decided to work for the BJP six months ago, said that young Patidars have shifted their loyalty to the BJP. “You vote for the Congress candidate but you would never know where he would be tomorrow. So I thought I might as well shift my loyalty before the candidate I voted for does it. Why should I vote for the Congress?” Patel asked.
Patel and his friend Harisinh Vaghela gave a number of reasons why they would vote for the BJP. “The BJP government brought water here, otherwise farmers from this region used to flee to Saurashtra region. This government gives us subsidy to build the house, we get uninterrupted power supply in these houses, there are a number of industry units and we do not have enough workers so our youngsters get jobs,” Vaghela said.
Viramgam is one of the constituencies, where the AAP’s entry is making it challenging for both the BJP and the Congress whose candidate Lakhabhai Bharwad won the seat by more than 75,000 votes in 2017. The AAP candidate Kuvarji Thakor’s volunteers rake up “fear factor” among voters. Karamjeet Singh Dhumija, who along with some AAP workers has come from Ludhiana to campaign for the party, said, “We can see the voters’ yearning for change. But in the the urban areas people are scared to come out and even take the pamphlets from us. In villages we get warm reception.” Another party activist Ravi Tandon said, “But there is a silent vote. Voters here are not like those in our Punjab, they are not vocal. But we can see that we are welcomed.”
The former Gujarat Congress president, Amit Chavda, said that his party may not be in the limelight like the BJP or the AAP, but it still enjoys a “solid support base” in the state. “We may not be making so much noise but the Congress is still strong and would stun everyone in tribal areas, north Gujarat and a few other areas. In Saurashtra, we may not be able to repeat what we had. My assessment is that in these areas the anti-incumbency factor would favour us,” he said.
The four-time MLA, Chavda also countered the argument that the Congress does not have a face in the polls. “Who is the BJP’s face? It’s just Modi, who is the Prime Minister. It still needs Modi and Shah (Amit Shah) to win elections.”