MESSAGE FROM GUJARAT: A BATTLE OF EQUALS IN 2019

The BJP is reassuring itself that notwithstanding the fall in its tally of seats in the Gujarat assembly from 115 in 2012 to 99 in the recent election, the party cannot be accused of being a victim of anti-incumbency since its vote share has increased from 47.8 per cent to 49.1.

However, in the case of the Congress, there has been a rise in both the number of seats – from 61 to 80 – and in the vote share – from 38.9 per cent to 41.4. It will be clear, therefore, to any neutral observer that the Congress’s performance has been somewhat more satisfactory than that of the BJP.

Moreover, the BJP fell well short of its target of 150-plus seats as announced by its president, Amit Shah. His subsequent explanation for the deficit that this was due to the Congress’s low level campaign might not have too many takers because, for one thing, his idea of a low level was the Congress’s dependence on caste, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and appeasement. These factors may be “sins” in the BJP’s eyes, but they do not put a party beyond the pale for the others.

And, for another, the BJP itself did not set any high standards with its identification of Rahul Gandhi with Aurangzeb because of his lineage like that of the Mughals, and the levelling of the charge of collusion with Pakistan against Manmohan Singh. Both these accusations were made not by a small-time operators but by none other than Narendra Modi himself.

What these slanders showed was how nervous the BJP was about the outcome evidently because it had sensed the discontent at the ground level over the lack of employment opportunities and the economic disruption caused by demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax.

In the end, the party did manage to survive because, first, no Gujarati would have liked to cut the ground from under the feet of a Gujarati prime minister. And, secondly, because of the party’s far superior election machinery compared to that of the Congress whose organizational structure has been in a shambles in recent years.

If the latter still succeeded in putting up a spirited fight, the reason was its success in forming what has been called a rainbow coalition of three disparate groups – the Patels or Patidars under a dynamic young man (who was not old enough to contest the elections), Hardik Patel; the backward castes under another youngster, Alpesh Thakor, who has won his seat; and the Dalits represented by the third of the musketeers, Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit, who has also won.

It is the collation of these caste groups, who do not have much love lost between them, which has riled Amit Shah sufficiently to accuse the Congress of playing the caste card. The BJP president must also have been rattled by Rahul Gandhi’s success in shedding his Pappu or a half-wit image to launch a feisty campaign which brought the Congress to the brink of victory, and in acting as an anchor in a turbulent political atmosphere to ensure the unity of the three new supporting groups of the Congress and pose a serious challenge to the seemingly invincible Modi-Shah juggernaut.

What Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as an effective orator and a reasonably successful organizer has shown is that he has finally come out of the shadow of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, and is ready to lead the Congress as its new president. What it also showed was that there was now no doubt about a Modi vs Rahul confrontation in 2019 where it will be a battle of equals where Rahul is expected to give as good as he gets.

The reason why his political stature is approaching that of Modi’s is that Rahul is relatively free of the taint of corruption which has long been his party’s bugbear. Rahul also appears to have shed his mother’s fascination with socialism with his supposed preference for boosting small and medium industries.

In these respects, he is charting his own path just as he did when he tore up at a press conference the copy of an ordinance drafted by the Manmohan Singh government which aimed at negating the judicial bar on convicted politicians contesting elections.

But the most remarkable demonstration of his own mind was to project himself as a devout Hindu, which marked a radical departure from the Congress’s secular tradition, whose foremost champion was Rahul’s great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru.

The move flummoxed the BJP, whose propaganda had been largely based on depicting the Nehru-Gandhis as anti-Hindu with slurs even on the marriage of Indira Gandhi by describing Feroze Gandhi as a Muslim and not a Parsi, and on Sonia Gandhi who was presented both as a foreigner and a Catholic. Now, the BJP may well have lost the Hindu card for berating the Congress.

While Rahul is rising to Modi’s level, the latter is no longer as all-conquering as before as the Gujarat results have shown because of a sluggish economy. In all likelihood, it will be a level playing field for both in 2019.