First off the blocks, will Congress’ fortunes change?
An early start and tall electoral promises may not be enough for the Congress to take on ‘strong man’ Narendra Modi, says Brijesh Pandey
IT WAS the first day of Navratri in 2011, when senior Congress leader Shankar Singh Vaghela sought blessings from the Ashapura Mataji temple and the Haji Pir Dargah in Kutch before launching the party’s campaign for the 2013 Gujarat poll. Soon after, the party showed a rare aggressive mood. Party president Arjun Modvadia took on Chief Minister Narendra Modi over alleged “development” and rampant corruption, former deputy chief minister Narhari Amin promised 15 lakh houses, and Congress leaders expressed their disgust at the treatment meted out to Keshubhai Patel. On the face of it, the Congress looks in top form for the poll. In reality, has this early start put the party in any kind of advantageous position?
One of the promises of the 12-point “Gujarat People Development Vision 2012”, which the Congress feels will reap rich dividends, is the promise of homes for poor urban women. The promised scheme envisages using about 20 lakh sq m of land lying vacant with the Gujarat Housing Board (GHB) to build houses for women who have been living in rented accommodation. More than 40 lakh forms were picked up at eight municipal corporations and 160 municipalities across Gujarat — a response that left even the Congress stunned. At some places, the turnout was so huge that the police had to resort to lathicharge to control the situation.
This is not the only promise the Congress has made. “The value added tax (VAT) charged by the Modi government is the highest in the country,” says Congress spokesperson Himanshu Vyas. “Let us come to power and we will slash it to a level where the cost of a litre of petrol or diesel will be less than all adjoining states.” Vyas further adds, “To boost education, we will also give free laptops to the students who have been neglected by the Modi government.”
The question is, will the Congress be able to convert these promises into votes? Even senior Congress leaders, who appear enthusiastic on record, are perhaps not so hopeful. According to a senior partyman: “It’s all fine to announce free laptops and houses, but these schemes just create a buzz. The real issue in Gujarat still remains Narendra Modi. If we are not able to expose him or make the people of Gujarat realise that he is taking them for a ride, these promises won’t be of much help.”
The Congress’ central leadership has avoided making unsavoury references to Modi
Though the Congress seems to be on a much surer footing this time and has been the first off the blocks, the challenges facing the party remain the same: absence of a leader with a pan-Gujarat appeal to take on Modi, and intense factionalism. Says Manish Mehta, Political Editor of Divya Bhaskar: “What ails the Congress most is the absence of strong leadership. People in Gujarat like to vote for strong leaders. If you look at history, leaders like Madhav Singh Solanki and Chimanbhai Patel of the Congress, and now Narendra Modi, are all revered because of their strong personalities.”
BESIDES, THE Congress has been plagued by intense factionalism, which has cost it a lot in the past 15 years. Insisting that factionalism is a thing of the past, senior Congress leader Shankarsinh Vaghela says: “Now there is only one group — the Sonia Gandhi group — and since the start of the current campaign, people can see we are united in our efforts to remove the Modi government.”
Almost the entire top brass of the Gujarat Congress has been publicly making the same claim. But it’s a claim that is easily belied, with senior leaders admitting in private that once the list of candidates is declared, all this bonhomie would simply evaporate.
“Modvadia and Shakti Singh have been in the Congress all their lives,” says a senior Congress leader on condition of anonymity. “You can’t expect them to concede power to someone like Shankarsinh Vaghela, who came from the BJP, or Narhari Amin and Surendra Patel, who were earlier in the Janata Party.”
One area where the Congress’ central leadership has been extremely careful this time is in avoiding any unsavoury references to Modi. Congress leaders in Gujarat are said to have impressed upon their national counterparts that the best way to go about dealing with Modi is to leave the tongue-lashing to the local Gujarati leaders. This was in ample display when Sonia Gandhi addressed a rally in Rajkot, but stayed away from making any reference to Modi. State partymen admit it will be “a huge victory” for them if the BJP ends up with 100-105 seats this time.
Besides focussing on the 35-odd seats where the Congress had lost the last election with margins of less than 5,000 votes, the party is keenly looking at the “Keshubhai Patel factor”, hoping it would erode the BJP’s prospects in Saurashtra and Kutch. Though openly siding with Keshubhai can prove to be a double-edged sword, Congress leaders never miss a chance to harp on how Modi ditched the former BJP leader. “The BJP in Gujarat owes a lot to Keshubhai, who has been around since the Jan Sangh days,” says former deputy CM Narhari Amin. “Keshubhai is a people’s leader and the Patels won’t forget how he was insulted.”
Adding to the party’s worries is the entry of Samajwadi Party and JD(U) in the electoral fray. “They will eat into our vote share, thereby helping the BJP. Do they want the communal forces to win?” asks Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.