A day before counting got underway in Gujarat, an Opposition leader who met Rahul Gandhi quoted the new Congress president as saying: “I am still not confident about the exit polls. We may not win but we will do much together and will cut them down to size.”
In the end, the Congress could not breach BJP’s fortress Gujarat or get anywhere near the halfway mark but the fact that it did manage to bring down the ruling party’s tally to double digits has given hope to the embattled Opposition.
The ferocity of the Congress campaign which managed to give the BJP some nervous moments has earned the new Congress leader quiet respect within and outside the party. “The BJP’s loss (of seats) in Gujarat is a victory for Rahul,” senior CPI leader D Raja said.
Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram said: “Congress has returned a morale boosting performance in Gujarat under Mr Rahul Gandhi. The battle is now joined for five states in 2018.” Ashok Gehlot, AICC general secretary in charge of Gujarat, said: “Rahul Gandhi’s principle and issue-based campaign has altered the perception of people about the Congress.”
Rahul Gandhi, on his part, tweeted: “The Congress party accepts the verdict of the people and congratulates the new governments in both states. I thank the people of Gujarat and Himachal with all my heart for the love they showed me. My Congress brothers and sisters, you have made me very proud. You are different than those you fought because you fought anger with dignity. You have demonstrated to everyone that the Congress’s greatest strength is its decency and courage.”
The larger message of the battle royale, several Opposition leaders told The Indian Express, is that if the BJP’s graph is down in its home turf, there is hope in other states, especially the next round in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. Credible state-specific alliances and tactful seat-sharing — in other words, a united fight by the Opposition — could make a difference in 2019, the leaders said.
West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee said: “It is a temporary and face-saving win, but it shows a moral defeat for BJP. Gujarat voted against atrocities, anxiety and injustice caused to the common people. Gujarat belled the cat for 2019.”
But there is also a big message for the Congress and the other Opposition parties which have been criticising the government over its implementation of GST, the dip in economic growth, job losses and lack of creation of new jobs and agrarian distress. The results have shown that while these issues had a resonance among the electorate, the absence of a credible counter-narrative, an alternative vision, stopped voters from embracing the Congress fully.
“Merely exposing and criticising the BJP’s wrong policies and hardships will not cement the confidence of the people into voting against them unless it is backed by an alternate policy direction. What is required is an alternate policy trajectory upon which the widest possible unity of the Opposition forces must be built… that is the message,” CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury told The Indian Express.
In at least 13 seats, votes polled by the NCP and BSP were more than the margin of defeat of the Congress candidates. In Porbandar where Congress veteran Arjun Modhwadia lost, his margin of defeat was 1,855 votes. The BSP got 4,337 votes there. Similar was the case in seats like Botad, Chhota Udaipur, Dholka, Fatepura, Godhra, Himatnagar, Mansa, Modasa, Prantij, Rajkot Rural, Umreth and Wankaner.
DMK’s Tiruchi Siva echoed Yechury. Extending greetings to the BJP, he said “having committed so many unacceptable things like demonetisation and all… and also its monolithic policies… the counter, the need of the hour is for all Opposition parties to come together… if all Opposition parties come together and wage a united fight, this government can be defeated. We have to come together”.
NCP’s Praful Patel said the Congress would have “done better” in Gujarat if it had formed an alliance with his party. “The Congress should have tied up with the NCP. They could have done better,” Patel said. Seat-sharing talks between the Congress and NCP failed and they fought separately.
The Congress drew consolation from the fact that most who defected and fought on BJP tickets were defeated and these seats, largely in central and north Gujarat, remained with the party.
Congress state president Bharatsinh Solanki said the defeat of these defectors was the people’s way of giving a thumbs-down to “dhokebaaz leaders”.
The defections from the Congress had taken place days before the Rajya Sabha polls in Gujarat which Ahmed Patel eventually won in a tight finish.
“We knew we would win all seats where we had faced deceit by our own leaders,” Solanki told The Indian Express after the results Monday. “It proves that the people of Gujarat trust the Congress, and do not want dhokebaaz leaders.”
He admitted to his party’s inability to breach the BJP’s urban strongholds. “I think we lack the connectivity and ground-level workers in urban centres. The results would have been completely different if we had won a few seats in urban centres such as Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad.”