Gujarat goes to polls in about ten days. Here is the story of the election campaign so far.
Elections for all the 182 seats of the Gujarat assembly will take place in two phases. 87 constituencies in the first phase will go to polls on 9 December and 95 constituencies will go to polls in the second and final phase on 14 December. Both, the leader of the opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, and the ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party's PM Narendra Modi, have visited Gujarat and taken part in rallies to connect with the people of Gujarat and seek their support.
Even though a majority of the opinion polls have predicted a win for the BJP in Gujarat and the state has been a BJP stronghold for 22 years, the Congress party is leaving no stone unturned to not only remain in the fray, but also seriously challenge the BJP in its lair. However, the Congress campaign, which initially appeared to be giving tough competition to the BJP, is now appearing to be lagging behind in the race. There are many factors that seem to be going against Congress currently.
No face for CM:
It would have helped had the INC groomed grass-roots level leaders and projected them as an alternative to the BJP leadership; similar to Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab, a leader who won despite the drawbacks of the Congress. However, there seems very little chance of this happening.
Congress also appears to lack direction from the top leadership. In order to beat the BJP, Congress needs a leader who can command his supporters to focus on real issues and not get diverted by making derogatory remarks about the PM’s past as a humble tea seller or generating controversy over autonomy for Kashmir. Lack of proper leadership is the main reason why Congress campaign is in disarray, where everyone is firing in separate directions. Rahul Gandhi seems to be quite unsure of himself and ends up giving more ammunition to the BJP in almost every speech that he makes.
Congress’ self goals:
On 21 November, @YuvaDesh, the Twitter handle of the Indian Youth Congress, tweeted a derogatory meme , insulting PM Narendra Modi with a message- “Tu Chai Bech” (you sell tea).
The derogatory, classist meme was deleted after it caused outrage on social media. Several politicians across party lines condemned the derogatory tweet and slammed Congress for their classist mentality of viewing the working class as inferior.
This reminds one of the remarks made by Congress leaders such as Mani Shankar Aiyar prior to 2014 Loksabha elections. Mr Aiyar had said “I promise you that in 21st century, Narendra Modi can never become PM, he can never become PM, he can never become PM. However, if he want to distribute tea then he can come, we will arrange some place for him.”
It is widely believed that because of this attitude of the Congress, people voted for Mr Modi and the BJP in large numbers. BJP won 282 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the Congress was reduced to a mere 44 seats. Narendra Modi, who once was a tea-vendor, became the Prime Minister. It would be interesting to see how repeating the infamous “chaiwallah” epithet is going to affect Congress electorally this time around.
If embarrassment because of the tweet from Yuva Desh handle wasn’t enough for the Congress, one of their party leaders, Congress MLA Mahesh Patel, once again made a derogatory remark against tea vendors calling them ignorant and that they can’t do much except selling tea. The video of Mr Patel is being shared widely by BJP and its supporters on social media. The repeated comments by Congress against the poor reflect poorly upon it.
A while ago, senior Congress leader and former Home Minister P Chidambaram demanded “greater autonomy” for Jammu and Kashmir. While the Congress distanced itself from Mr Chidambaram’s comment, BJP criticised the former Home Minister’s statement calling it “contrary to India’s national interest”. The BJP implied that Congress was supporting the separatist ‘azadi brigade’ in Kashmir and taking a position that was in effect, anti-India.
Another controversial comment was made by a Congress Minister from Karnataka, Dinesh Gundu Rao who spoke about existence of “Hindu terrorism” in the country. The polarising effect of such statements can potentially electorally disadvantageous for the Congress.
Improved ranking in Ease of doing business, Pew survey and Moody’s rating:
Post demonetisation and GST rollout, India made a leap of 30 places in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, from 130 rank to 100.
According to the survey by US-based research centre Pew, 88 per cent or around 9 out of 10 people hold a favourable opinion of PM Modi and more than two-thirds are satisfied with the direction the government is taking the Indian economy.
The survey said “Young Indians, those aged 18 to 29, show slightly greater intensity of support (for Modi) than their elders, ages 50 and older,” adding “no other major political figure in India approaches Modi’s level of public support”.
On 17 November, Moody’s upgraded India’s sovereign rating to Baa2 from its lowest investment grade Baa3, citing the NDA government’s “wide-ranging program of economic and institutional reforms” among the reasons for the upgrade. This upgrade came after 14 years. The last upgrade by Moody’s was in January 2004, to Baa3 from Ba1 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime.
These developments, ahead of Gujarat assembly elections in December, are going to work favour of BJP and would help them counter Congress who were targeting BJP for its two path-breaking decisions- demonetisation and GST.
Online Campaign of Congress and BJP:
Grapevine has it that the Congress party is in talks with the international data mining firm Cambridge Analytica for the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019. What one might be viewing as the change in Rahul Gandhi’s social media strategy could merely be a trailer in the lead to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The ‘resurgence’ of Rahul Gandhi on Twitter could be seen as the re-branding and re-packaging of him as a product by such PR and data mining agencies.
BJP, on the other hand, is relying on smartly designed online campaigns by party volunteers and is focusing mainly on the work done by Prime Minister, which is in contrast to Congress campaign that has primarily emphasized on aggressive personal attacks. On social media, BJP is countering negative hashtags trended by Congress like #Vikas_ગાંડો_થયો_છે / #विकास_पगला_गया_है (Vikas has gone crazy) , #बदतमीज़_विकास ( Vikas is mannerless) with their positive hashtags. BJP is also creating hashtags such as #ProudToBeGujarati and #ProudToBeIndian along with their trends which is in accordance with the spirit of its trademark slogan"India first". In one of the videos from BJP campaign in Gujarat that went viral, a young man from Gujarat explains why it is important to support Narendra Modi who is taking tough decisions on his own for the betterment of our country. The positive campaign of the BJP gained a lot traction on Social Media, in addition the party's ground work in Gujarat.
GST : Rahul’s Criticism vs BJP’s Action
Rahul Gandhi so far has publicly attacked the GST and some of the problems associated with its implementation to try and tap into the minor public discontent, such as from sections like the trader community, against it. He even termed GST as ‘Gabbar Singh Tax’. By terming it Gabbar Singh Tax, Rahul Gandhi sought to connect with traders opposed to it by naming it after the dreaded dacoit, infamous for extortion (likening it to the ‘extortion’ of taxes by the Government).
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP party president Amit Shah, however, reached out to the traders in Gujarat and assured them that all the GST-related issues will be resolved soon. On 23rd GST meet, held in Guwahati on 9 and 10 November, corrective measures were taken to ease tax rate and compliance issues as promised by PM, thus potentially depriving Congress of one more issue against BJP.
It is common that implementation of new legislations brings with it a new set of problems. The entire field of litigation in a new subject opens up precisely because any new law brings with it its own set of problems or loopholes, even after absolute care taken by the law makers in consultation with the subject experts to frame and implement a statute. Only with the passage of time, does one get to know about the pros and cons of a statute. GST is a landmark legislation and the legislative apparatus to go with it is also detail-oriented. To iron out such problems related to GST as may come up from time to time, meetings of the GST Council take place. Already 23 meetings of the GST Council have been held so far. The next meeting of the GST Council is scheduled for January end next year. According to Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is one of the members of GST council, there will be deliberation on handloom and handicraft and even on the real estate issues in next GST council meet.
Congress’s caste based politics may backfire:
Congress, in its hopes to make a serious dent in the citadel of the BJP, has taken the support of Hardik Patel who claims to have the support of the Patidar community , Alpesh Thakor, who claims to have the support of the OBCs, and, Jignesh Mevani who claims to have the support of the Dalits in the state. With this move, Congress is treading on the dangerous ground of caste equation/social engineering.
Hardik Patel is facing strong opposition from his own community over his support to the Congress. At least six social organizations of the Patidar community have slammed Hardik Patel by charging him with misleading the community under the pretext of demanding reservations. Hardik Patel is an untested political non-entity so far, created largely by the media (which had also elevated former JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar to ‘national stature’) and his influence in the election may turn out be fairly limited. By playing the card of caste politics, Rahul Gandhi could have distanced the other voters of Gujarat, particularly the youth and therefore playing the caste card may even backfire in the elections.
Clash between PAAS workers and Congress:
Recently, there was a clash between the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti workers and Congress workers over ticket distributions. This is certainly bringing embarrassment for Congress party in a big way.
ISIS operative and his link with Congress’s Ahmed Patel:
In yet another embarrassment for the Congress party, one of the two alleged ISIS operatives who were arrested by the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad, Kasim Stimberwala, was working with a hospital of which senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel had been a trustee. While the Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani sought an explanation from the senior Congress leader, Ahmed Patel wrote to the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh seeking an “impartial and objective probe”.
This is not the only incident this year where the spotlight has been on Patel who is the political advisor to Congress president, Sonia Gandhi. Earlier in August, Patel was made to work hard by the BJP to retain his Rajya Sabha seat from Gujarat. He had barely scraped through after the Election Commission of India had disqualified the votes of two voting MLAs. In the end, Patel won by one vote.
Fertiliser scam of Congress leader unearthed:
BJP accused former Chief Minister of Rajasthan and senior Congress leader Ashok Gehlot’s brother of being involved in the fertiliser scam during the UPA rule. BJP accused that Agrasen Gehlot, brother of Ashok Gehlot’s company allegedly exported fertiliser meant for domestic consumption after claiming subsidy from the centre on it. Union minister Prakash Javadekar said that the opposition party is “synonymous with corruption” and that “Congress talks about farmers and their issues, but the relatives of their party’s Gujarat incharge is stealing the farmer’s subsidy”. Major revelation of yet another scam by Congress before the elections isn’t a good news for Congress.
Rahul Gandhi: Hindu, or not?
And then, we had Rahul Gandhi’s name appearing in the registsers meant for non-Hindus at the Somnath temple. The response of the Congress party to this was that not only was Rahul Gandhi a Hindu, he was a janeu-dhari Brahmin, implying that such a Hindu is the purest of the lot. How this will impact his party’s fortunes in Gujarar is yet to be seen. Although, it’s feared, that this event may have already sealed the Congress’s fate in Gujarat.
Come December, the full impact of all these unflattering actions by Congress leaders on the psyche of the electorate in the states of Gujarat and Himachal would be fully come to light. Safe to say that the Congress party has a lot to regret, and be worried about in terms of its electoral future.