How AAP has made Congress's do-or-die battle in Gujarat harder

“We have to forget Gujarat if we do not win this time,” says Congress leader

TOPSHOT-INDIA-ELECTION-POLITICS Show of support: File photo of a Congress rally in Bhavnagar | AFP

Fifty truckloads worth of publicity material dispatched from Ahmedabad, including a crore leaflets, are part of the Congress’s plan to end its 27-year power drought in Gujarat. In late September, workers will fan out all over Gujarat, highlighting the party’s programmes and the ruling BJP’s “failures”.

If the Congress comes to power, it has promised to implement the old pension scheme (like it did in Rajasthan), give gas cylinders at 0500, 300 units of free electricity every month, open new schools, waive farm loans, and introduce schemes for tribals and fishermen.

Notably, this time, the Congress is expected to select candidates based on surveys done at the grassroots level. The state unit is currently waiting for the result of the Congress presidential elections, which would help bring clarity to its campaign plan.

If holding on to power in its model state is important for the BJP, especially ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, winning Gujarat is no less crucial for the Congress. It had given the BJP a scare in 2017, winning 77 seats in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and holding his party to under 100. A better performance this time would not only boost the Congress, but could also strengthen the idea of a united opposition ahead of 2024.

The party had done well in Saurashtra and Kutch in 2017. Of the 77 seats it won, 32 came from the 54 seats there. In North Gujarat, it won 22 of the 53 seats.

However, much water has flown under the Sabarmati bridge since. More than a dozen lawmakers, and also Patidar leader Hardik Patel, left the Congress for the BJP. There has also been the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party, which is likely to hurt the Congress more than the BJP. The AAP is focusing on the areas where the Congress is strong, and it sees a chance of finishing second, if not winning, in these seats. The fight is close in certain seats like Vadgam, where MLA and dalit leader Jignesh Mevani will be pitted against the BJP, the AAP and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.

Trying to play down the presence of the new entrant, Gujarat Congress president Jagdish Thakor alleged that it was the BJP’s “B” team (see interview). However, a senior Congress leader, requesting anonymity, conceded that, “We have to forget Gujarat if we do not win this time”.

There are opportunities, though. Thousands of government employees, including state transport employees, policemen, and anganwadi and health care workers, have been agitating over the old pension scheme. The BJP is rattled by the protests and has been trying hard to pacify the agitators.

The Congress’s challenge would be to convert this sentiment into votes, especially with the AAP on the move. On September 10, the Congress called for a statewide four-hour bandh to protest price rise, corruption and unemployment. It got a positive response in many places. “We got good support from unexpected quarters. People supported us and downed their shutters,” said Ami Ravat, opposition leader in the Vadodara Municipal Corporation.

Former state Congress president Arjun Modhwadia said he was confident that the party would better its performance across regions. He said the party would reach out to every household under the programme “My booth, my pride”.

The party’s state women’s wing president, Jenny Thummar, who has been holding meetings across the state, claimed that people have been telling her that they want to oust the incumbents.

Lalit Kagathara, an MLA from Saurashtra and once a close aide of Hardik, said that the Modi bubble had burst, and that “farmers and the middle class are the most affected and fed up”. However, he did admit that there could be some problems within the party; after all, the masses had not trusted it for 27 years.

Another concern for the Congress is that political analysts are not giving it a chance. Said political observer Hari Desai, “I do not fancy the Congress’s chances. The AAP will help the BJP to come to power.” He added that, more importantly, the party lacked a killer instinct and a united front.

What makes the Congress’s task more difficult is the absence of a mass leader acceptable to all Gujaratis. Said political observer Ghanshyam Shah: “The party should have geared up long ago. I do not rule out the BJP coming to power again.”

That the Gujarati public is frustrated is clear. Who can take advantage of this remains to be seen. Notably, as of now, Arvind Kejriwal has made more trips to the state than Modi and Rahul.