One of the biggest questions in the ongoing Gujarat Assembly elections is whether the Congress is losing ground to the Aam Aadmi Party and if so, how much.
About three months ago, an impression was being created that the Congress in real danger of losing the main Opposition status to the AAP.
However, as the campaign gained momentum and candidates were announced, the Congress is said to have staged a sudden revival enough to retain its status as the main Opposition in Gujarat, though repeating its 2017 performance still seems difficult.
There are several elements which make the Congress an unpredictable entity in this Gujarat election. There are broadly three positives and three negatives each for the Congress which have contributed to this unpredictability.
Now, this 'revival' of the Congress in the last one month or so may not be as sudden or surprising. Even in past elections , especially 2007 and 2012, it may have seemed like the Congress is nowhere in the picture, the party still managed to get a decent vote share.
Despite defections and a lack of leadership, the Congress still has its fundamentals intact in the state in terms of base and organisation. In that sense, it isn't so much a revival but the Congress reclaiming its own base.
For instance let's take these three elements.
Even at the peak of Narendra Modi's popularity as chief minister, the Congress retained a stable vote share of 38 percent and above. The party has not fallen below a vote share of 30 percent in any Assembly election in Gujarat till date.
However, the elections since 1998 have been largely bipolar. It remains to be seen how much the emergence of new players like AAP or AIMIM damages the Congress. More on that later.
There are around a dozen seats that the Congress hasn't lost in over two decades. These include Khedbrahma, Dariapur, Jamalpur-Khadia, Jasdan, Borsad, Mahudha, Vyara, Danta, Kaprada, Vansda, Bhiloda and Vadgam
However, in a number of these seats the Congress is facing challenges both due to defections to the BJP as well as the presence of AAP, AIMIM and Bharatiya Tribal Party.
Stronger Presence in Certain Segments
In particular, the Congress is strong in tribal and minority-concentration seats. It has also consistently held its ground even in rural pockets as well, both tribal and non-tribal areas.
This is especially the case in North Gujarat and parts of Saurashtra. Among the seats listed above, except for Muslim-concentration seats like Jamalpur Khadia and Dariapur, all the others are predominantly rural seats.
The Congress also has a stable base among Dalit voters. It was one of the few social groups that backed the Congress even in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, even as it lost support among Adivasis.
According to CSDS data, Congress support among Gujarat's Dalits actually increased between the 2017 Assembly election and the 2019 Lok Sabha election, even as it fell among other social groups.
However, the Congress is limited by the fact that Dalits are just 7 percent of Gujarat's population and Muslims less than 10 percent and that the BJP's influence has been increasing among Adivasis and OBCs who had traditionally been pro-Congress.
Absence of a 2017-Style Wave
The anti-incumbency against the BJP-led state government is very much there but the major push the Congress got in the 2017 election due to three grassroots' movements, is not there in this election. These movements are the Patidar Anamat Andolan, the protests by OBCs against any change in quotas, and the Dalit protests against the Una flogging incident.
All three protests were based on a sense of caste-based grievance against the ruling BJP and led to an increase in the Congress' support.
Barring a announcement against the BJP and in favour of the Congrss by the Maldhari community Mahapanchayat, no such factor is working for the Congress this time.
In 2017, the Congress had also gained due to the public resentment against demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. In contrast, COVID-19 deaths and the economic losses due to the lockdown, haven't quite become an election issues this time.
Competitors for the Opposition Space
For the past 25 years, Gujarat has seen a bipolar battle between the BJP and the Congress. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Janata Dal used to be an important player.
Now the third space is being revived in the form of the AAP. Now, it is not clear how much the AAP is gaining and who it is harming more - BJP or Congress. Given BJP's superiority in terms of organisation and resources, it does seem that the Congress may be more vulnerable to vote erosion at the hands of AAP.
Then there are the Bharatiya Tribal Party and AIMIM, who are appealing to Adivasi and Muslim votes respectively, both considered traditional support bases of the Congress.
The BTP of course has troubles of its own due to the tussle between party patriarch Chhotubhai Vasava and his son Mahesh Vasava. The party may face difficulties even in their bastions of Jhagadia and Dediapadha but in the other seats they are contesting, they could end up harming the Congress to some extent.
The same can be said about the AIMIM, which is contesting over a dozen seats in the state. Muslim-concentration pockets like Jamalpur Khadia and Dariapur were considered reasonably solid seats for the Congress but now these may be in danger due to the AIMIM.
AIMIM state president Sabirbhai Kabliwala is a former Congress MLA from Jamalpur (now Jamalpur Khadia). He had contested again as an Independent from the seat in 2012 and secured 24 percent votes.
He is considered among the stronger AIMIM candidates in this election.
Part of Congress' problems stem from the repeated defections of its leaders to the BJP. Out of its 77 MLAs elected in 2017, about 14 defected to the BJP. A similar set of defections had happened even before the 2017 elections as well, in the run-up to the Rajya Sabha polls earlier that year.
This has given a talking point to the Congress' rivals like AAP and AIMIM that voting for a Congress candidate is like voting for a potential defector to the BJP.
But it is also true that not all defectors get rewarded. For instance OBC leader Alpesh Thakor lost the bypoll from his seat Radhanpur after defecting to the BJP.
This time the Congress is up against some high profile former MLAs of its own. This includes two seats considered Congress bastions - Jasdan and Vadgam, where former Congress veterans Kunwarji Bavaliya and Manilal Vaghela are contesting on BJP tickets.
The bottomline is that the Congress prospects are a clash between the fundamentals like base and organisation that are working in its favour and narrative that seems to be going against it.