Congress dilemma in Gujarat

 

Anil Anand

 

Ideally speaking Gujarat Assembly elections-2017 should have been the right moment for the Indian National Congress to strike back and hit Prime Minister Narendra Modi where it hurts him the most. A Congress victory in Modi’s home turf which raised him to the stature of Prime Minister of India would have been a morale booster for the beleaguered party trying hard to counter him, and in turn find its feet. A victory in Gujarat Assembly polls would have acted as Adrenalin for the party ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

It is not that political circumstances are not conducive for Congress to try and stage a comeback. No doubt Modi would be spearheading the BJP campaign in the state and at other places as well. But fact remains that he has been out of Gujarat since May 2014 when he became Prime Minister and his two weak-kneed successors Anandi Ben Patel and Vijay Rupani respectively were not even a patch. Stepping in the shoes of someone who had created a larger than life image even as chief minister, was a difficult act for them to follow.

The governance issues apart, the water tight compartments created by Modi in dealing with political and social spectrums have shown cracks during the last three years thereby giving glimmer of a hope to Congress. The contentious ‘Patidar Andolan’, outcome of influential Patels’ unfulfilled demand for inclusion in the Other Backward Class category that almost rocked the BJP Government in the state, laid a perfect platform for Congress to strike back. Ostensibly, at least up till now, the party does not seem to be interested to grab the opportunity.

As in the other states Congress has a serious crisis of leadership, the weakened organisational network apart, in Gujarat but which has a different dimension. With all the established leaders either departed or pushed into the oblivion and no new face holding promise the entire Congress gameplan rests on Shankarsinh Vaghela. As is well known he was an import from Sangh Parivar and joined Congress on failing to grab his chance to become chief minister in his parent organisation.

The Congress is beset with a strange dilemma vis-a-vis Gujarat. Should the party project Vaghela as the chief ministerial candidate or not? The prolonged indecision on this issue has already resulted in the RSS-trained Vaghela showing signs of restless and flexing his muscles. More so the seasoned campaigner has let the Congress high command known in plain words that the party was not making any preparations for the elections and instead all state leaders were ganging up and plotting his ouster.

Despite his hard talk and threats to chart a separate course the Congress high command is, of late, inclined to view his demand to be projected as the party’s face in the elections favourably. Indications are that Congress president Sonia Gandhi is not averse to Vaghela leading the charge. The fallout, positive or negative, of this decision would only be known once an official announcement is made. Whether he leads the charge or not the fear that Modi-Amit Shah duo would let no opportunity go to create dissensions in the Congress would strongly persist. After all they have to protect their home turf and nothing better than mauling the rivals even before they entered the poll arena.

Gujarat watchers feel that Congress is caught in a catch-22 situation on this front. However, the intensity of the damage, in case BJP’s plans to engineer defections succeeds would be less if Vaghela’s ego is nursed and he is given an important role in elections.

Yet another dilemma awaits the Congress on looking for prospective allies in the state or convincing influential community leaders to come to the party fold. Despite the ‘patidar andolan’ having thrown up a powerful young leader in Hardik Patel, due to leadership crisis no concrete effort seems to have been made to rope him in some way or the other.

There has been a reaction to ‘patidar andolan’ among the Dalits. Although seemingly the two protestations are a counter to each other but fact remains that both patidar and dalit agitations are against the BJP-run state government and if tapped properly by the Congress leadership they could lend force to an anti-BJP front.

Like Hardik Patel, the Dalit movement is also seeing rise of a young leader in Jignesh Mevani who is a lawyer by profession and a social activist. He led a huge rally of Dalits in Ahmedabad wherein participants pledged to give up removing carcasses of dead animals and cleaning gutters. Ostensibly these issues were meant to give a direction to the fledgling Dalit movement in the state but it has the potential of generating a political storm.

Former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot was recently given charge of the state replacing Gurudas Kamat. An old stylist Gehlot like old-time Congress leaders is given more to a wait and watch policy to let the storm wither away. It would also depend on whether he shows some urgency in dealing with the issues and accordingly advising the high command.

It would be too much to expect Gehlot to change his style and be aggressive. Nevertheless, he would have to rise a few notches and deliver if Congress has to fiercely contest the elections and in turn keep its hopes alive for 2019. There certainly is no space for delay now.

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