India & Congress: Can the Party Learn From Gujarat Mistake & Prepare for 2024?

The party needs a robust strategy to return to its core vote base and strengthen with tangible action on the ground.

6 min read
India & Congress: Can the Party Learn From Gujarat Mistake & Prepare for 2024?

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(This is Part 2 of a two-part series on a detailed analysis on the rise of the Indian National Congress, its nation-wide outreach with Bharat Jodo Yatra and where it currently stands in India's socio-political realm.)

Continued from Part 1..

The Nano unit was a major disaster. Rahul Gandhi also referred to the adverse effects of demonetisation and GST on the state’s industry. He reeled out unemployment data and spoke of increasing privatisation of education and healthcare sectors.

If this was in urban areas, in agriculture-dominated regions, he spoke of farmer issues and in tribal areas, the focus on “Jal, Jungle and Zameen”, which are at risk with the onslaught of corporate firms. If he referred to the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Act of 2013 which is being sought to be diluted, he also did the non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the PESA.

He was joined by Hardik Patel (a Patidar), Alpesh Thakor (an OBC), and Jignesh Mevani (a Dalit) speaking in the same language. It was unprecedented that a Patidar, an OBC, and a Dalit could share a common platform since they have traditionally been at loggerheads for a variety of socio-economic reasons.

The Patidar agitation of Hardik remained central, but it became a cue for youngsters cutting across caste lines to empathise with one another's real issues of expensive education and decreasing jobs. Hardik’s rallies, at times bigger than those of Modi's, used to be attended by thousands of youngsters from all castes. And, so of Alpesh and Jignesh. Alpesh even went and locked up several industrial units for ignoring the locals in jobs while their lands were given to the corporates.

How Congress Failed To Harness the Power of Youth

Thanks to the insecurities of the State Congress leaders, Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel quit the Congress and even won the 2022 polls on BJP tickets. The central leadership of the Congress let them go. The troika of Jignesh, Hardik, and Alpesh could have led the Congress better than a section of the state leaders who did not contest 2022 for they could not win, but allegedly sold election candidates to prospective candidates.   

In 2022, not only Rahul but also Priyanka and Sonia Gandhi were absent. The entire Gujarat election was entrusted to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who had himself rocked the entire Congress boat, by agreeing to take up the Congress presidency, provided Sachin Pilot would not be the chief minister.

Though it's history, it is pertinent to mention that his own supporting MLAs remained holed up somewhere else while a team of central observers waited in vain to choose Gehlot’s successor. There is no gain in saying that the election to the Congress presidency was a farce given that Gehlot was also already chosen much before the election itself and his successor was already being finalised. So, when the Rajasthan pot was boiling, he was holding charge of the Gujarat Congress—most often being only physically present and while obviously, remaining focussed on his home state.


“Jal, Jungle and Zameen” & Tribal Issues Remained a Political Lip-Service

Rahul Gandhi visited twice in the run-up to the campaign and held rallies in the tribal region of Dahod where he aggressively spoke of “Jal, Jungle and Zameen” under attack from the corporate sector, but that was it. The Congress party as a unit never picked up the campaign that was led by the party’s own first-time MLA Anant Patel (an Adivasi) against the Gujarat-Maharashtra Par-Tapi-Narmada Riverlinking Project, announced with much fanfare by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her budget for 2022-23. It was Patel alone along with several local Adivasi organisations, who managed to stop the project.

There have been several tribal issues which the Congress party never took up despite the tribal regions comprising 27 reserved seats from North to South. The BJP had won only nine seats out of these 27 seats in 2017, but in 2022, the Congress got three. Besides these 27, there are other 13 seats where the tribal vote could make a huge difference. A central leader from Rahul’s team called Manish Sharma was overseeing the Adivasi seats and deciding the tickets.

The Congress fielded six Muslim candidates and only one of them won. No state party leader even individually raised the issue of the premature release of the rapists of Bilkis Bano and mass murderers of her family on August 15, the very Independence Day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort spoke of treating women with respect.

The sitting BJP MLA CK Raulji, a member of the committee which recommended the release of the life convicts, publicly referred to the convicts as “Brahmins from respected families” but Gujarat Congress leadership avoided it nor was it even the party’s campaign talking points. The central leadership also gave it a pass, except in Delhi press conferences. The result was that CK Raulji won the 2022 election with a margin of over 50,000 votes.


Congress Couldn't Cash in On Minority Groups For Fear Of Losing Hindu Votes In Gujarat

Mujahid Nafees who runs a non-political body—Minority Coordination Committee, provides a list of 65 seats where an effective Muslim-Dalit combination could give Congress more than half of it. He expresses his surprise that “Despite so much communal polarisation already there, I fail to understand what is the Congress party afraid of, what Hindu votes they fear to lose. Where is its ideological position?”  

There are 13 seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes. Against seven of them in 2017, the Congress won two of Jignesh Mevani and Shailesh Parmar whereas there are countless cases of Dalit atrocities across the State. The Congress as a party never built an agitation out of it, whereas Jignesh Mevani and some supporters brought the Una Dalit torture case onto the national scene in 2016 when Mevani was not even a legislator.

Gujarat is the most recent glaring example of the rut that prevails in the Congress party across the country. Among the few states where it has been the main opposition, the Gujarat unit was the best. Ever since the BJP came to power in Gujarat in 1995, Congress has always won 50 to 60 seats with vote shares ranging between 35% and 40%. Even at the height of Modi’s Hindutva wave in 2002, the party won 51 seats and around 35% vote share.

The Rise and Decline Of Congress & The Birth Of BJP

Eminent political scientist and a former JNU faculty Ghanshyam Shah points out that, “Ever since Indira Gandhi’s second avatar, the party fell into the vote bank trap and this was also the time the BJP took birth in 1980. The vote bank politics was not ideological but simple electoral arithmetic. It began when 800 Dalits converted to Islam in Tamil Nadu’s Meenakshipuram in 1981 and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the BJP made an issue of it. They subsequently took out a Jal Yatra of collecting waters of all rivers together and this had the blessings of Indira Gandhi.”

“Rajiv Gandhi continued this and got the locks of the controversial Babri Masjid opened. Around the same time, Doordarshan was permitted to air the Brahminical version of the Ramayana TV serial. All this set the backdrop for the BJP to reap the benefits later. And then the party was wishy-washy over implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations,” adds Shah. The rest until the demolition of the Babri Masjid could be history but thus began the Congress’ process of losing its ideological moorings in favour of vote bank electoral politics.

As a result, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Kanshiram-Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party took stronger roots and became forces to reckon with in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress lost the Muslims to Samajwadi Party and the Dalits to the Bahujan Samaj Party. The Congress’ third vote bank in Uttar Pradesh, the Brahmins also started disintegrating.


Can Congress Commit to ‘Soul-Searching’ & Reinvigorate Party To Claim Lost Fame?

AICC General Secretary Madhusudan Mistry concurs the argument. “The Bharat Jodo Yatra is an exercise to reclaim it and is generating a positive response. The challenge, however, is to ensure that the message percolates to the States. Take Gujarat. The State leaders are simply afraid to take up issues in a false belief of losing vote banks and the message of the central leadership doesn’t percolate. They are still stuck in the caste mould of allotting party tickets while there is hardly any caste leader in the party. The time is to take up serious issues and not castes,” Mistry says.

He insists, “The party is in a transition. The sons of leaders who had struggled to find their place directly want the crumbs of office. So people like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jitin Prasada walk away, they want things immediately because of their father’s legacy. The need is to create a young workforce of hardworking intelligent youngsters in the system.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar sums it up: “The Congress party today stands at the crossroads. Either you take the challenge or you perish. Now that the Bharat Jodo Yatra is an indication that the challenge has been taken, the time is to unambiguously set the path and the States conveyed the ideological clarification. In Gujarat, for instance, they are frightened to take on Modi directly; they don’t even wish to refer to him for fear that they might lose votes. You can’t do anything when the opposition party itself is not confident.”

On its foundation day, the Congress needs to look back with a view to returning to the basics first at the central leadership level and with a clear message to the states. If the top is clear-headed, an unambiguous whip percolates to the bottom. And time is running out.

To read Part 1, click here.

(The writer is Founder Editor, Development News Network [DNN], Gujarat.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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