Ninety-year-old Balubhai Patel pores over sheets of paper containing data of a dozen-odd “tough” seats for the Gujarat Congress, all of which he plans to tour in the coming days. Patel is chairman of the Election Coordination Committee of the state Congress.
Raised in the era of the Independence movement, Patel, barring the few years he was with the breakaway Janata Dal led by Chimanbhai Patel, is a staunch, khadi-donning Gandhian and Congressman, who scoffs at the very idea of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). “Tall leaders like Chimanbhai and Shankersinh (Vaghela) also could not create a third force, then what is AAP?” he argues.
Instead, for the first time, the party that has been out of power in Gujarat since 1995 and has not won a single Lok Sabha seat since 2014, has taken a leaf out of the BJP book to strengthen its booth network.
Party leaders note that this is the only count on which AAP may not be able to match the Congress, “lacking the kind of network we do”.
A group of youngsters in the Congress office in Ahmedabad have been assigned to enrol volunteers to manage booths. “From the database we have, we call up each number to verify the enrolment, ask them if they want to volunteer, and if they agree, we ask them to enrol four-five more from their neighbourhood who will work in the booths,” says an office-bearer.
The Congress has also deployed 91 “raths”, one for every two constituencies, since August, which are on the move constantly. Their agenda is to underline “the party’s contribution to laying the foundations of the country’s development, in the several decades before BJP”.
The party headquarters in Ahmedabad is almost bare. “Everyone has gone on the Parivartan Sankalp Yatra,” says an office-bearer. The Yatra started on November 1 from five routes in the five regions, and is to cover 175 of 182 constituencies.
At a rally in Vallabh Vidyanagar of Anand district last month, Modi talked about the “silent” campaign by the Congress. “Do not assess them on the basis of the fact that they have not conducted public meetings, press conferences, or made statements,” he said.
Pointing to Modi’s frequent Gujarat visits since April, virtual announcements and inaugurations, 22 public meetings since August, and roadshows, Patel, the Congress election coordinator, says: “Had it been so easy for the BJP, why would the PM have to visit the state so frequently and give out such warnings (about the Congress)?”
The 90-year-old veteran of many a poll battle adds: “AAP will take away only the urban votes, which are the BJP’s. It has no sway in the rural areas.” A former Congress MP says that Arvind Kejriwal’s party is “relying only on propaganda, it has no network, no real work on the ground”.
But there is unease about the scrappy AAP nevertheless. Former Lok Sabha MP Sandeep Dikshit, the son of the Congress’s successful Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit, who was felled eventually by AAP, has been assigned the task of busting AAP’s Delhi Model claims. Dikshit has been camped in Gujarat.
2022 is a real test for the Congress, given that it reached its highest tally of 77 since 1985 in 2017. (In 1985, the party had won 149 seats, with 82% of the votes, which remains the highest in the state.) The 1985 win was credited to Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki’s KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) formula, isolating the Patidars. While KHAM earned the Congress rich dividends for many years – till 2002 and Narendra Modi blanked it out – the party’s 2017 performance ironically came on the back of Patidar support.
While nearly 8 percentage points separated the BJP and Congress’s 41.44% vote share, the contest was actually much closer. The BJP got just 22 more seats, while in 36 seats, the winning margin was less than 5,000 votes. Of these 36 seats, 18 were won by the Congress,
This is the reason many Congress leaders insist, “We almost formed the government last time”, while crediting it less to the Patidar agitation and more to anti-incumbency. An internal analysis of the party reportedly revealed that the Congress got 47% of the Patidar votes while the BJP got just 2% less.
As proof of the anti-incumbency, Congress leaders point to the party’s gradually rising seat tally over the years – barring the 2002 elections held after the riots: 33 in 1990, 45 in 1995, 53 in 1998, 59 in 2007, 61 in 2012 and 77 in 2017. In 2002, it got 51 seats.
But the circumstances in the state are now altered.
In an interview to The Indian Express, AICC general secretary in-charge of Gujarat Raghu Sharma earlier said: “Last time there was the Patidar andolan, OBC andolan, a former chief minister (Ashok Gehlot) was in-charge, Rahul Gandhi campaigned here for 40 days… What more force could the Congress have used?”
Not one of these “forces”, barring Gehlot (who too is distracted with the goings-on in Rajasthan), is working for the Congress now. There is no caste-based agitation, Rahul is busy with the Bharat Jodo Yatra and may not visit Gujarat at all, there are new challenges in the shape of AAP and AIMIM (which is fighting its first Gujarat Assembly election), and while the BJP has rolled out its poll blitzkrieg led by the still-popular Prime Minister, the Congress campaign is muted. Strapped for funds, the party is focused only on its weakest areas. Projects related to the elections have been downsized, sources say.
Besides, after defections to the BJP and a Covid death, the Congress is now a yawning 49 seats behind the BJP as the two head into polls.
To counter the BJP’s numerous ‘Double Engine Sarkar” campaign, the Congress has put up billboards in Ahmedabad with the slogan “Congress nu kaam bole chhe, Congress nu kaam aj bolshey (Congress’s work speaks and its work only will speak)”, with photos of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, Raghu Sharma, PCC chief Jagdish Thakor, and Leader of Opposition Sukhram Rathwa.
But younger Congress members are despondent this may not be enough. Harking about what the Congress did in the past won’t work, says a leader. “People want to know what we will do, they want a vision.”
In that, AAP, with its aggressive talk of Delhi model, tinged with saffron, might have taken the lead.