Prime Minister Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was expected to steamroll Rahul Gandhi’s Congress in Gujarat Assembly elections 2017. PM Modi’s home state has been a BJP stronghold for well over two decades and given the spate of electoral victories the party had registered in the last few years, it was expected that Congress would capitulate without putting up much of a fight.
With a master strategist in BJP president Amit Shah, the party had even boasted of bagging a mind-boggling 150 seats in the 182-member Gujarat Assembly. On the other hand the Congress under Rahul Gandhi had lurched from one electoral loss to another and was almost written off.
But a spate of issues gave the Congress some hope in Gujarat. First came a youngster from nowhere to rock the state in the mid 2015. Hardik Patel, a young patidar, took on the state government and the BJP highlighting lacks of jobs and educational facilities for his community while demanding reservation for the Patels. The community has been a staunch BJP supporter and Hardik’s rebellion and the state government’s tough crackdown on the agitation was enough to see the Patels raise the red flag. On the other hand, even the Dalits were feeling stifled with several incidents of violence against them over alleged cases of cow slaughter.
The Congress was quick to pounce upon the opportunity. Rahul Gandhi ensured that Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani joined the party while OBC leader Alpesh Thakor also stood with his party. Hardik did not formally join the Congress but he campaigned extensively against the BJP, giving its Patel leaders sleepless nights.
In a bid to appease to the largely Hindu populace, Rahul Gandhi even toured several temples. The Congress, too, claimed that Rahul was a janaeu-dhari (sacred thread) Hindu even as the BJP took pot-shots at him. While Rahul kept up playing the soft Hindutva image, he also targeted the BJP’s 22-year rule in the state for not doing enough. Highlighting joblessness, agrarian crisis, poor human development index, GST and demonetisation, Rahul took on the BJP and PM Modi. His aggressive campaign forced Modi to step up and launch a counter-attack.
While, the BJP has managed to retain Gujarat for the sixth time, which is no mean effort, it has been given the jitters in what is arguably its strongest fortress. The Patidar agitation, the OBC resurgence, the not-so-glamorous Gujarat model of development were used by Rahul to punch hard and he did manage to throw the BJP off balance. It took all of PM Modi’s oratorical skills to thwart Rahul’s challenge. Without PM Modi’s charisma, the BJP would have found the going even tougher and the results although favourable to it in the end, does give the party a lot to chew on.
The Congress can take many positives from the Gujarat loss as the party forced the BJP to fight with its back to the wall in Gujarat. The biggest takeaway from Gujarat is the emergence of Rahul as a leader who can hold on to his own in the rough and tough world of electoral politics. He now needs to put the lessons learnt from the Gujarat battleground into practice and ensure that Congress is on the path to recovery.