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The Gujarat, Himachal Challenges For Congress

The Congress is trying various strategies to win back Himachal and wrest Gujarat from the BJP

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Upbeat mood: Supporters of Congress candidate Sunder Singh Thakur in Kullu
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In poll-bound Gujarat, the contest is between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party, as it has always been. No regional party has been able to break into this two-party contest ever in Gujarat’s history. Ironically, this time it is the performance of a third party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), that has forced the Congress and the BJP to change their poll strategies.

In Gujarat, political analysts say, the final tally for both the Congress and the BJP will depend on the inroads that the AAP makes. If the AAP remains confined to the four urban centres of Ahmedabad, Baroda, Surat, and Rajkot, it will harm the BJP as the Congress is traditionally very weak in these four areas. But much would depend on the vote share the AAP would get in these regions.

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Conversely, if the AAP performs better in rural and semi-rural districts, then it will damage the Congress more because in these areas, the latter is strong, and traditionally anti-incumbency works more in these seats than urban ones in Gujarat. So, the greater the AAP inroads in rural, semi-rural areas, the more the splitting of opposition votes.

Many argue that this time, repeating 2017 will also be difficult for the Congress and their best bet is to hold on to at least 30-35 percent of the vote share and win about 60-65 seats. Between 1995 and now, the Congress’s vote share has been between 35 and 41 percent in the Gujarat polls.

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“Looks like the Congress have given up in Gujarat too early and has left the field vacant for the BJP. By eating into Congress votes in urban areas as Gujarat is among the more urbanised states in the country, the AAP will only help BJP. The BJP has been having a near-free run in urban constituencies in the last few elections,” says the political analyst deputy editor with Ahmedabad Mirror, Dr. Pradeep Malik.

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Taking on the biggies Kejriwal in Rajkot, Gujarat Photo: PTI

But over the years the AAP’s proven success has been only in the urban areas, considered as the bastion of the BJP. As the AAP is aggressively campaigning in the urban areas, the Congress has tactfully moved toward rural areas and to its committed voters, thus leaving the urban confrontation, where the BJP is strong, for AAP and the BJP to handle.

At present, the AAP’s presence beyond urban centres is negligible but if the perception that the AAP is a serious challenger spreads beyond urban areas, it is likely to eat into the Congress votes too. The Gujarat Assembly elections 2022 will unfold in two phases on December 1 and 5. The recent Lokniti-CSDS poll survey says that around 62 percent of the voters agreed that there is a need for a third alternative.

But over the years the AAP’s proven success has been only in the urban areas, considered as the bastion of the BJP

Dr Manish Doshi, state Congress spokesman says he is deeply aware of the triangular contest buzz all around. But he is not ready to accept it. “I must tell you it is not a triangular contest but a confluence of the A and B teams of the BJP. They have adopted a strategy of the division of the votes to counter the Congress but the Congress knows it and will move forward to success,” he says accusing the AAP of being the B-team of the BJP.

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As both prime minister, Narendra Modi, and home minister, Amit Shah, belong to the poll-bound state, the BJP has the advantage of Gujarati Asmita and poll campaigns from Modi and Shah. The Congress’s top leadership, including Rahul Gandhi, is absent from its Gujarat campaign. “I am of the opinion that it is too late for Rahul (Gandhi) to be in Gujarat. His yatra is getting such a good reception wherever it passes through. I wonder why his yatra was not planned so that it would have reached Gujarat around the elections,” says Malik. He says three MLAs of Congress have jumped off in the last couple of days. “Hopelessness is evident in the Gujarat election.”

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Doshi, however, is optimistic. He says the perception has been created that Rahul Gandhi has not been part of the Gujarat election campaign. “But, I must tell you, the Bharat Jodo Yatra is a different battlefield and for very different ideals,” Doshi says.

With the AAP campaigning aggressively, the Congress has tweaked its election strategy. Instead of big rallies and flashy advertisement campaigns, it is focusing purely on rural and semi-rural seats through door-to-door campaigns, mini yatras, and corner meetings. Also, the Congress’s singular focus is on SC and ST reserved seats in which the party had performed very well in 2017.

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The formidable Virbhadra Singh Photo: PTI

At the same time, the party’s election promises are more about education, health and a corruption-free government rather than any national issue. “Our well-defined goal is that education should reach everyone and it must be free, from KG to PG,” a Congress party spokesman says.

Doshi claims around 3 lakh people died in Gujarat during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are coming up with ‘Jan Arogya Sankalp Patra’ after we form the government to provide free medical treatment up to a cost of Rs 10 lakh,” he adds. “We will march towards success,” he adds.

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Will the Congress’s strategy work? According to veteran journalist, R.K Misra, BJP’s core competence lies in confronting the Congress and the BJP has been devising its strategy accordingly. But here the AAP is playing a different ballgame, using the BJP’s combative poll strategy against it in Gujarat.

Like in Gujarat, in the Himachal Pradesh elections, the absence of Rahul Gandhi surprised the ruling party

Misra says that the AAP has nothing to lose in Gujarat even if it fails to win any seat as it will be known as the party that contested against the BJP and prime minister, Narendra Modi, in Gujarat. At the same time, the Congress is playing a deft game in Gujarat. “Normally the Congress brings the Gandhi family to every election campaign. It would give a chance to the BJP to mould every election narrative towards the Nehru-Gandhi family. Rahul Gandhi has not been to Gujarat and the BJP has been denied a chance to make the election about the Nehru-Gandhi family,” he adds.

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“In every election campaign, the BJP would argue that no development took place under Congress rule. But the BJP is ruling Gujarat for the past 27 years. It cannot say it hasn’t done anything,” he adds. Misra says the Congress’s retreat to rural areas leaving urban seats where the BJP has been strong to the AAP, has made the BJP campaign more around the AAP than the Congress. Only time will tell whether the Congress move to fight elections silently without the Gandhis and away from the urban centres, will work.

Like in Gujarat, in the Himachal Pradesh elections, the absence of Rahul Gandhi surprised the ruling party. Anurag Thakur, union minister for information and broadcasting, was furious about it. “Why did Congress general secretary, Rahul Gandhi, not campaign in Himachal Pradesh?” thunders Thakur, adding that the Congress had accepted its defeat and the BJP would again form government in the state with a majority. He says the ‘double-engine’ government had done remarkable work in the past five years and the BJP’s popularity had improved in the country and the state as well. However, surprisingly, this year Congress didn’t suffer any factionalism as the party didn’t witness any big rebellion in the distribution of the tickets for the November 12 assembly polls.“There is no factionalism in the party. It died with Virbhadra Singh’s death. He was the one championing dissidence or factional wars, in elections or otherwise. Now, there is no such thing in the party after him,” says Sukhwinder Sukhu. Virbhadra Singh had made desperate bids to dislodge Sukhu when the latter was made PCC president in place of Virbhadra Singh, who had taken over as Chief Minister in 2012. Being in power, and also out as the opposition, the Congress remained the strongest organisation in Himachal Pradesh, a state carved out of the unified Punjab under the States’ Reorganisation Act of 1967. But internal dissidence plagued the Congress. That is why calmness in the Congress this time is a breath of fresh air. Political stalwarts like Dr. Yashwant Singh Parmar, fondly called ‘Himachal Nirmata’, an architect of Himachal, faced dissidence and eventually was replaced as the state’s first chief minister.  The Congress has been in complete disarray in the state during the past five years of the BJP government.

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“Till the party won the Mandi Lok Sabha bypoll and three other assembly elections in November 2021, the seniors had almost given up the hope to see a revival,” says Kush Parmar, a five-time former MLA. “Winning four by-polls gave the leaders a ray of hope to see the Congress return to power as the state has an established trend of replacing the incumbent government,” says Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader, Mukesh Agnihotri. As the elections drew closer, the party tried to consolidate its vote bank and showed a united face.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Gujarat, Himachal Challenges")

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Naseer Ganai and Ashwani Sharma

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