Key Takeaways for Congress from the Gujarat Verdict

Now that the dust is starting to settle in the country after the high-voltage Gujarat election, there are many more voices who believe that the 2019 general elections will no longer be a foregone conclusion.

Led by their star campaigner Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP clinched its sixth consecutive victory in Gujarat. It is indeed a big victory for a party that was facing 22 years of anti-incumbency. However, this victory didn’t come easy. The BJP struggled to cross even the 100-seat mark when it was ‘quite sure’ of bagging 150 seats.

The narrow win merely saved the face of the party even when the Prime Minister of the country pulled out all the stops to get a landslide victory in his home turf, Gujarat. From invoking the son-of-the-soil sentiment and ‘Gujarati Asmita’ to polarising on communal lines, hitting out at the Nehru-Gandhi family, and playing the victim card – he tried all that he could and with all his might, just to retain the state which gave him 26 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 general elections.

The party not only missed its 150+ mark but also gave its worst performance in over two decades by securing just seven seats more than the minimum needed to form a government.

Even though BJP got a vote share of 49.1%, it was just 1.2 percent higher than the 47.9% it got in 2012. On the other hand, its opposition, Congress, brilliantly bested most of the exit polls, improving its vote share from 38.9 percent (2012) to 41.5 percent.

Off cameras, many BJP and RSS leaders admitted that this election had been the toughest of all. Many of the winning party’s leaders were unsure of its victory and were hoping for “mercy votes”. Well, their wishes did come true as Guajarati’s bestowed upon Modi their mercy votes simply because they didn’t want to see ‘one of their own’ getting overpowered in the elections.

But what good is a victory if the PM of the nation has to gamble everything to secure it? He went to an extent to win Gujarat that he did not think twice before compromising the dignity of the office he occupies. He didn’t falter before accusing the former Prime Minister of conspiring with Pakistan to defeat the BJP in Gujarat.

Modi’s brand of politics has degraded beyond imagination and achieving victory after falling so low is nothing but a moral defeat for the country’s PM. Quite evidently, the BJP has nothing to celebrate as the party’s once staunch supporters have begun to feel the arrogance that has seeped within the BJP leaders and one can easily sense the winds of change in the air.

Gujarat is no longer a Hindutva Laboratory and winning Gujarat merely on the Hindutva pitch is no more a guarantee for the BJP.

One of the biggest takeaways from this election is that the TINA factor has died, and how miserably.

Even though Rahul Gandhi lost the elections, he brilliantly galvanized the Congress and broke the myth that Narendra Modi is invincible. The losers have become the gainers, and the credit must be given to the newly appointed Congress President for his foresight and perseverance. He led this change without an election machinery as strong as that of the BJP, and with a massive funds crunch.

Smartly enough, the Gandhi scion pinned his hopes on Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor, and Hardik Patel – channelizing the power of the youth. Even though the trio had varying interests, Rahul successfully managed to bring them together.

In these times, where BJP is spreading its wings across the nation, tackling the same BJP in Gujarat and giving the party leaders jitters is a big achievement for Congress. The Congress party, which was written off until three months ago, emerged as a strong contender for the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections and Rahul Gandhi is now the lead occupant of the Opposition space.

However, there is a lot to learn and a lot to ponder.

Here are my key takeaways for the Congress party from the Gujarat Verdict:

Shed Complacency

If there is one thing that Congress needs to learn from the BJP, then it has to be the party’s zeal to implement lessons into practice. After losing Delhi and Bihar, the BJP learnt its lessons and applied them well in time to win the next elections. And so, it did.

Likewise, it is important for the Congress party to realise that influencing voters on time is the essence of any political campaign. Gujarat should have been the party’s focus long back. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Congress, maintaining a rather placid presence, failed to nurture leadership in the state – which was extremely important given the party’s failure to make a comeback in Gujarat for more than two decades.

One after another defeat in the state demotivated the party and its leaders, but Congress failed to act. The absence of an organised campaign strategy for the election and the party’s reluctance to decide about its chief ministerial candidate has costed them heavily in Gujarat. Ideally, Congress should have started its campaign in 2015, highlighting local issues like corruption, a failed Gujarat Model, farmers’ distress, unemployment, etc. It should have been a strong opposition, riding on the palpable discontent amongst the BJP voters. Unfortunately, the party woke up in August when Ahmad Patel secured his fifth term in the Upper House, defeating the BJP.

After the launch of its campaign in September, the party fought tooth and nail, but campaigning for just three months isn’t enough to secure a victory in the Modi-bastion especially when in the first four and a half years Congress was nowhere to be seen. Unable to realise the importance of time, the late start in Gujarat campaign made Congress lose a state that could have been a resounding victory for the party had it started giving its focus to the region earlier enough.

The failure to have a good CM candidate became one of the primary reasons for its defeat. But it’s never too late to start. Rather than being embarrassed because of its defeat or boasting of its moral victory, the Congress party now needs to prepare for the road ahead.

While the end of 2017 took BJP’s rule to 19 states, Congress is just left with 4 states. And the road to 2019 will go through Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh – states where assembly polls are to be held in 2018.

Therefore, to change the scenario in 2018, Congress needs to start acting now. Not later.

Congress needs to remember that there is an Everest to climb.

It’s highly likely that the BJP will go full throttle in Karnataka as the state gears for Assembly election in 2018. Shedding the complacency, Rahul Gandhi and team must focus and work hard to retain the state.

Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh all the three states face strong anti-incumbency, and Congress needs to turn voters by preparing well in advance. Although the party does have CM faces like Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh; it doesn’t have any potential CM face in Chhattisgarh. A lot needs to be done in all these states to assure victory.

That said, Congress must not leave Gujarat now. It needs to nurture young leadership in the state and play a role of active opposition, rather than passive opposition which has been the case for the past 22 years.

Address Local Issues

Another big factor in the BJP’s win in Gujarat was the Congress’ failure to address the real issues and fight for them. For the most part of its campaign, the party focused on bashing the PM, without realising that the state and its people are very proud of their humble man. They may have a disgruntlement with the BJP, but Narendra Modi still enjoys respect and adulation across all regions in Gujarat and Gujaratis couldn’t simply take in the constant condemnation of their leader and that’s evident from BJP’s stellar performance in Urban Gujarat.

Rather than giving Modi a chance to encash votes riding on sympathy and playing victim card, the Congress party should address local issues more.

Move Beyond Demonetisation & GST

While Rahul Gandhi attacked the BJP government a number of times on demonetisation and the patchy implementation of GST, it didn’t do much help for Congress. The opposition should have understood that Indians have swallowed demonetisation as a bitter pill to cleanse the nation of counterfeit notes, and they have moved past it. And, so should Congress.

Similarly, constantly criticizing your own brainchild Goods and Services Tax (GST) as Gabbar Singh Tax was a grave mistake on Congress’ part. The right narrative would have been to support the GST while voicing the fact that the Government has implemented it in haste and it didn’t give enough time to the traders recover from the after-effects of demonetisation.

Eventually, voters didn’t support Congress in the industry-heavy Surat area – highlighting the fact that GST-related woes no longer appeal them. Because every citizen understands that the GST will eventually help the nation.

Ram Mandir

Ram Mandir is a subject that connects with the sentiments of majority of Hindus. So, when a senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP, Kapil Sibal argues in the apex court that the hearing of the Ram Mandir verdict should be delayed till July 2019, he is doing an irreparable damage to the party.

It doesn’t really matter how much the Congress party rejected Sibal’s statement after the damage was done, the public got a feeling that on one side there is the BJP which is trying to build Ram Temple soon, and on the other side, there is Congress that is trying to delay the judgment.

The road to 2019 will still go via ‘Ayodhya’. When everything else will fail, this is the Brahmastra which the BJP will use.

Refrain from Controversial Politics

Controversies are a part of politics; there is no escape.

But how good a fate a party can have if its own leaders trigger big controversies?

When Kapil Sibal defends indefensible triple Talaq on the grounds that ‘it is an age-old tradition and could not be considered unconstitutional’, the party he represents is bound to lose several votes. The Congress party that talks about women rights gets associated with a regressive issue and is believed to support it, while Narendra Modi who is considered to be the Hindu nationalist leader comes out to be the ‘only’ hero fighting for Muslim women’s rights. Politics is all about Perception and Optics.

One after another, Kapil Sibal’s statements weakened the position of a reviving Congress in Gujarat. After Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the Somnath temple raised many eyebrows, Sibal went on to allege that the Prime Minister is not a “real” Hindu. If a leader of such standing indulges into the war of who is a good, bad, fake, or real Hindu, then his political party is pretty much reserved for a defeat. Questioning Narendra Modi’s religiousness, the man who has been hailed as “Hindu Hriday Samrat”, was nothing but a foolish act on Sibal’s part.

Another controversy that cost Congress heavily in Gujarat is Mani Shankar Aiyar’s “Neech” remark. Yes, there is no doubt that Narendra Modi indulged in low-level politics, but Congress leaders have to remember that the Gujaratis have always been immensely proud of having a ‘Gujarati’ Prime Minister and they will never approve of any derogatory remark targeted at him.

It’s Congress’ mistake if the party failed to demand an apology when Narendra Modi called the former Prime Minister a night watchman and Baba Ramdev called him a ‘namard’.

Even after the Congress suspended Mani Shakar Aiyar, Modi made sure to garner votes by playing victim card. The very moment Modi associated the Neech remark to his caste, his background, and Gujarati Asmita, Congress was destined to suffer in the election.

Controversies like these, including seeking deferment of hearing in the Ayodhya case, strengthened BJP’s hold on urban seats. While Congress’s tally improved outstandingly from 22 in 2012 to 40 in 2017 in the first phase of the polls having 89 seats, it was only after Narendra Modi emotionally blackmailed the Gujarat voters and used the controversy extensively during the second phase of the polls, that the Congress’s tally climbed from 39 to just 40 in the second phase of 93 seats.

Hinduism is separate from Hindutva

India is a deeply religious country. Separating religion from politics is difficult here. And thus, an important takeaway for Congress from the Gujarat election is that it should build its brand of Hinduism – one that is separate from Hindutva, for that’s actually what Hinduism is.

It’s indeed reassuring to note that Rahul visited 27 temples during his Gujarat campaign and his party won 18 seats in these constituencies as it validates the fact that visiting temples is not ‘soft Hindutva’, it is plain Hinduism, and anyone can practice it, anyone can visit temples, without having to answer the right-wing radicals.

When the radicals are busy mixing religion with nationalism, left-liberals should stay away from the tactic. Congress needs to revive Mahatma Gandhi’s Hinduism which should be a counter-narrative to the RSS’s Hinduism. Being a Hindu doesn’t mean that you should oppose other religions and that’s what Rahul Gandhi should spread as Mahatma Gandhi’s Hinduism, without getting into the anti-national trap.

Weak Organisation

The Congress party has a weak organisation pan India, and it should be strengthened from the block level. With state leadership that’s in disarray or rather absent in many states, the future could be bleak if Rahul Gandhi didn’t act now.

The absence of a potential CM face in Gujarat and the grave need to rebuild the party structure at the state level resulted in the defeat of veteran leaders like Arjun Modhwadia, Siddharth Patel, Shaktisinh Gohil and Tushar Chaudhary.

Moreover, the party doesn’t have an election machinery that can compete with the powerful election machinery of the BJP. Congress’ failure to connect with the masses has a lot to do with the lack of funds in the party and the lack of a strong cadre with active foot soldiers who can bring people out of their houses to vote for Congress.

For winning the 2019 election, the Congress party should start building its election machinery without any further delay. It should learn from Amit Shah’s booth management and last mile connectivity manoeuvres.

Correct election management calls for a strong team of party professionals, office bearers and volunteers who are willing to reach and connect with the millions on the grassroots level. To get rid of its corrupt party image, Congress needs to bring fresh, clean faces in the party. Regaining Congress’ lost glory will be easier for Rahul Gandhi when he has a fully-functional organisation and an enthusiastic team ready to work actively on the ground.

Women Voters

Before the Congress even launched its Gujarat campaign, I have been pretty vocal about the fact that if Narendra Modi is the X-factor in Gujarat, then women voters are the Y-factor and Congress must aim to empower women to win their votes. While Congress’ women wing- Mahila Congress rolled out its campaign on October 2 in Gujarat, it was too late to attract women voters.

This demands an active initiative on the part of Congress where it must focus on women voters and support them all across the country, without waiting for the last moment. And the party must be structured in such a manner that more and more women should get representation at every level of the organisation

Reservation

An essential point that Congress must contemplate is whether it wants to focus on ‘aspirational’ India or ‘regressive’ India. At a time when the country has become highly aspirational, taking it back to reservation politics is a big no.

Fulfilling reservation demands of one community will fuel counter polarisation by other castes against the parties that support them. While Congress did win 13 seats in the Saurashtra region, due to the Patidar agitation for reservation, spearheaded by Hardik Patel, it must avoid involvement in reservation politics, if it wants to win India.

Rural Areas

The Gujarat verdict clearly represented how Congress’ rural reach helped it getting a respectable tally. Rahul Gandhi should nurture this reach and emerge as the voice of rural people. He should take up issues like farmers’ distress, poverty, and joblessness and aim for Congress revival by strengthening rural India.

Urban Areas

Another excellent takeaway for the Congress from the Gujarat election is to work on gaining urban votes. Congress lost Gujarat only because of its poor resonance with the urban voters who supported Narendra Modi in large numbers, mainly because of the lack of a strong opposition.

Rahul Gandhi must shed his inhibitions of being entitled as pro-rich and form a powerful urban narrative that appeals to the aspirational middle class which seeks affluence and development, not freebie politics.

The Future is Now

While maintaining a balance between rural and urban voters may seem to be a difficult task, Rahul Gandhi is known to be someone who isn’t afraid to achieve the unattainable.

It’s time for the Congress party to create its own growth model, it’s India Model – where both Rural & Urban India get due importance. And if Narendra Modi has snatched many of Congress’ initiatives, it’s time for Rahul to lay hold of the BJP’s initiative of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ – for only Rahul Gandhi can turn this into a reality.

Now that Rahul has got his own place, there is still a lot that needs to be done for him to able to project himself as an alternative to Narendra Modi.. He should build on his economic narrative to win the masses without getting into the trap of polarisation.

He must take up political issues just like his grandmother Indira Gandhi did and connect with the masses in the same manner. He should also take Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology to every home in the country.

I understand that a win is a win, and a defeat is a defeat.

But at the end of the day, it is the BJP that has faced its worst moral defeat, and it is Congress that has achieved the biggest moral victory ever in the Indian political history. And Rahul Gandhi must strengthen this victory for a better Congress, a better democracy, and a better nation.

 

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