IT WAS a script that went awry right from the start. Though nobody was expecting any miracle, Congress leaders were sure of one thing: the 2012 election was the best chance they had in a decade to shore up their numbers. While the party managed to improve its tally by two seats, all its top leaders, barring Shankarsinh Vaghela, lost at the hustings.
One year before the election, the Congress looked prepared for the fight. Vaghela kicked off the campaign on the first day of Navratri in 2011 from Kutch. The Congress state unit’s top five leaders — Arjun Modhvadia, Shaktisinh Gohil, Narhari Amin, Siddharth Patel and Vaghela — made a public display of unity, and it looked like after a long time, the party meant business.
In a supposed masterstroke, the party announced the ‘Ghar nu Ghar’ programme, which promised 50 lakh houses to the poor and women. More than 50 lakh forms were snapped up, making the leaders feel buoyant of their chances.
But all that bonhomie came unstuck when, after being denied a ticket, Amin quit the party to join the BJP. Barely had the shock of this defection subsided, internal fighting forced the party to not declare the second list of candidates.
In the end, Leader of the Opposition Gohil lost to the BJP’s Purshottam Singh Solanki in Bhavnagar by 18,000 votes, state unit chief Modhvadia lost the Porbandar seat to the BJP’s Babu Bokhiria by more than 17,000 votes and Siddharth Patel lost to the BJP’s Balkrishna Patel by 5,000 votes in Dabhoi. Accepting moral responsibility for the result, Modhvadia quit his post.
So, what caused this debacle? The Congress, which saw both tempers and chairs flying after the first list of candidates was announced, has been facing a lot of criticism that tickets were distributed in an arbitrary and unfair manner. This led to mistrust and disobedience.
“The party’s central leadership — Rahul Gandhi, CP Joshi and Mohan Prakash — is responsible for this debacle,” says Amin. “Sitting in Delhi, they decided who will get tickets in Gujarat, a state of which they had no knowledge. The Gujarat leadership was preoccupied with lobbying for tickets and ensuring that the rival camp doesn’t get any. So, people who had influence in Delhi were given tickets, whereas deserving candidates were left out. Please check how many people who left the Congress won this time.
“The likes of Modhvadia kept me in the dark till the last moment. Is this how you treat someone who has worked for you for the past 21 years? I may have lost in 2002 and ’07, but those were communally charged times. Guess who lost their seats in an election without any communal wave?”
Another issue that upset many party leaders is the fact that there was virtually no opposition against Modi in Maninagar.
“Modi fielded Purshottam Solanki and ensured that Shaktisinh Gohil was not able to get out of his constituency; ultimately Gohil lost. The same tactic was used against Arjun Modhvadia,” says a senior Congress leader on the condition of anonymity. “We pitted Shweta Bhatt against Modi. If we were so sure of her chances, then why did we treat her like an orphan and not send a senior leader to campaign for her? Why didn’t we concede the seat rather than make such a fuss?”
Ultimately, Modi defeated Bhatt by more than 86,000 votes.
The other factor that dealt a big blow was the lacklustre performance in the Kutch- Saurashtra region. The Congress was pinning its hopes on the region and dreamt of dislodging the BJP as the biggest party. “We got the thinking right, but the strategy wrong,” says a senior leader. “We were over-dependent on Keshubhai and misread the so-called anger of the Patels. The BJP was down by eight seats in the region, but we didn’t gain much.”
This was not all. The party had also put much faith in BJP rebel Kanubhai Kalsaria to play spoiler in at least three to five seats. That scheme also came a cropper as he lost his own seat.
ACCORDING TO Jagdish Mehta, editor of Lok Samarthan, “The Congress leadership has failed to recognise that Gujarat politics has changed over the years. They played the same old Dalit politics and made tall promises to the backward classes. But in Gujarat, playing the poverty card won’t help. Modi has realised that and he tried to address the ‘neo middle class’. He gave the common man a sense of honour by uplifting Gujarat’s status in the nation’s eye. But the Congress failed to understand this changing dynamics.”
Adds Kana Bantva, editor of Divya Bhaskar in the Kutch-Saurashtra region, “To win the election, the Congress needed three things: a powerful leader, which the party didn’t have; a powerful organisation that can micromanage booths and campaign; and, if they wanted to upstage Modi, a wave, which they didn’t have. Until and unless they get two out of the three things right, it will be difficult for the party to pose a serious challenge to Modi.”
So, will the Congress bounce back? A jaded party worker sums up the dilemma, “By the time the next chance comes, it will be close to a quarter-century of us being out of power. If the Congress workers still think we are relevant, it will be nothing short of a miracle.”
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.