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On rocky road to 2022 polls, Gujarat Cong plans afresh: think local, steer clear of party vs Modi tussle

With its strategy of taking on Modi having failed in the past, the Congress now aims to stick to local issues, take on state BJP leaders

Dalit leader and Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani was among the seven recently-appointed working presidents of Gujarat Congress. (Express file photo by Nirmal Harindran)

After the recent exit of Patidar leader Hardik Patel from the Gujarat Congress, the party high command, in an attempt to walk a fine social balance, appointed seven new working presidents for its Gujarat unit, including Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani and former Surat mayor Kadir Pirzada.

Many in the party view this as a deja vu moment for the Congress as back in 2017, just months before the previous Assembly elections, the AICC had appointed four working presidents — Tushar Chaudhary, Paresh Dhanani, Karsan Das Soneri and Kuwarji Bavaliya. But with Bavaliya, five-time MLA and a leader who represents the politically significant OBC Koli community, quitting in 2018 to join the BJP, the plan soon went awry.

Four years later, with the 2022 Assembly elections round the corner, the Congress finds itself at a similar crossroad — trying hard to maintain its social engineering balance while being battered by defections. From July 2017 to July 2022, the party has lost 29 of its MLAs; its current tally in the Gujarat Assembly stands at 64. With Hardik’s recent defection to the BJP and Patidar philanthropist-leader Naresh Patel refusing to join politics, the Congress is on a bumpy road to the 2022 elections.

At a recent meeting that the state leadership of the Congress had in Delhi with the party high command, it was decided that the Gujarat Congress would have to focus its campaign on countering the local leadership of the BJP and draw lessons from its failed strategies of the past. A senior leader said the party has consciously decided not to make it a Modi vs Congress battle.

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The meeting was attended by GPCC spokesperson Manish Doshi, PCC president Jagdish Thakor, Leader of Opposition Sukhram Rathwa, besides other senior leaders.

During the 2007 state elections, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had taken on Modi, then the chief minister, calling him “Maut ka Saudagar”, a personal attack that didn’t serve the party well. Subsequently, with the rise of Rahul Gandhi, the contest became a Modi vs Rahul one, which too did not reap electoral benefits for the Congress in the state.

Shankersinh Vaghela, who has held important posts as GPCC chief and Congress Legislature Party leader, had been of the view that if Gujarat’s elections were turned into a personality clash between Modi and Rahul, the party would not stand a chance. Vaghela exited the party in 2017, soon after the presidential elections in which several Congress MLAs allegedly cross-voted.

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At least 14 MLAs quit the party after Vaghela. Yet, the Congress won 77 of 182 seats, its highest tally in two decades, in the election held in the backdrop of the Patidar quota agitation led by Hardik.

The quota agitation had focused largely on the local issues of access to education and jobs for the Patidar community. The disenchantment in the community towards the ruling BJP is said to have swung the votes in favour of the Congress.

A senior leader said the party feels that “the local leadership should raise local issues and also have a say in the ticket distribution”, which would help the party take on the BJP at a time when it is seen to have its “weakest CM” in Bhupendra Patel.

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Speaking to The Indian Express, GPCC spokesperson Manish Doshi also said the high command would not declare the CM face ahead of the polls. “The high command made it clear that the CM will be chosen by elected leaders of the Congress. We will not be declaring a CM face before the polls. Our election is against BJP’s C R Paatil and CM Bhupendra Patel,” added Doshi.

The choice of the seven working presidents has thus been made keeping social and regional equations in mind. Besides Mevani, who is a Dalit, Tankara (Morbi) MLA and Patidar leader Lalit Kagathara; Chotila (Surendranagar) MLA Rutwick Makwana and Rajula (Amreli) MLA Ambarish Der, both OBCs; Bapunagar MLA Himmat Singh Patel, who is a Gujjar; Indravijaysinh Gohil, former general secretary of Gujarat Congress and an OBC leader; and veteran party leader Pirzada have made it to the posts.

On the role of a working president, Doshi said, “It can be said that the role is a recognition by the party of your hard work. It is most certainly an elevation where the party gives you specific assignments to achieve within a deadline. You will travel a lot for party activities and become a face for the party among the people you represent. Also, a message is given to the society that the party believes in inclusivity and we build bridges.”

But those who have been working presidents in the past, including Hardik, have claimed they were never part of the party’s executive body or of the decision-making process.

In the recent past, the Gujarat Congress had appointed 25 vice-presidents and 75 general secretaries, an unprecedented step that was seen as an attempt to keep everyone happy.

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Pirzada, one of the seven working presidents and a close confidant of the late Congress leader Ahmed Patel, said, “This election, the party has asked me to focus on the stretch between Bharuch and Umargam in Valsad district of South Gujarat, and to keep Asaduddin Owaisi’s All-India Majlis e Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in check.”

Pirzada, who claims to be a descendant of Sufi saint Peer Qayamuddin (Dada bawa) in Surat district, has a following among Hindus and tribals as well.

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“Our target will be to mobilise Congress leaders and take up issues of the public to the government and get those resolved. As a working president, we have also to increase our membership drive in the state and for that, a planned strategy has been made. We will start implementing it in the coming times by organising different programmes.”

Mevani, who too has been made working president said, “I have some agendas in my mind, particularly on unemployment. I have a blueprint for making permanent all contractual and outsourced workers in Gujarat. The working, marginalized class of Dalits and Muslims are my primary base, so I will try to consolidate my base, especially in North Gujarat areas such as Mehsana, Patan and Banaskantha.”

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Asked if he was afraid of meeting the same fate as Hardik, Mevani said, “I will draw my power and influence from my people. They will decide for me.”

First published on: 10-07-2022 at 01:21:44 pm
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