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So Near Yet So Far in Gujarat: Lessons For The Congress Going Forward

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The Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh election results are out. As expected – but personally not hoped for – the BJP under PM Modi has managed to win both states – retaining Gujarat and wresting Himachal from the Congress. Himachal Pradesh has a history of oscillating between the two parties, and one senses that the Congress had pretty much given up in this state, concentrating its attention and (reportedly) meagre resources on Gujarat.

The Congress has still performed better in Himachal Pradesh than predicted, suggesting that with a bit more attention, the contest could have been a lot tighter.

The Congress has performed very creditably in Gujarat, winning nearly 80 of the 182 seats and bringing the BJP down to double digits. This is the Congress’ best performance in Gujarat in decades, and comes on the back of the entire Union Cabinet led by the PM campaigning in Gujarat for weeks. Let us also not forget the vast resources the BJP commands from big businessmen, particularly in Gujarat. Gujarat is BJP’s ultimate citadel, and it is significant that it has been shaken in this election.

There are some important takeaways from the Gujarat result which the Congress would be wise to heed for  state assembly elections in 2018, and the national elections in 2019:

1. The Congress mounted an excellent campaign in Gujarat. Its positives were Rahul Gandhi’s combative and issue-oriented leadership, astute political diplomacy in bringing together three dynamic young leaders (Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh) under the Congress umbrella, a vastly improved and proactive social media campaign (critical for elections today), and the excellent political management provided by Ahmed Patel and Ashok Gehlot. These factors must be codified and repeated in successive elections in all other states and at the Centre too.

2. However, the Congress campaign lacked in two critical areas, which proved to be its undoing. First, the Congress lacks credible state-level leadership in Gujarat. This is proven by the defeats suffered by a number of prominent state party leaders. Election after election (Delhi, Bihar, West Bengal, Kerala, Punjab) shows that strong regional leaders are critical in taking on the Modi-Shah election machinery. Importing Hardik and the others countervailed this deficiency to an extent, but the Congress must avoid the mistake of centering its entire campaign around Rahul Gandhi. Rahul should be the force multiplier and coordinator who works over and above strong and charismatic state-level leaders. This is a critical lesson going forward.

3. The second error made by the Congress was that large parts of its campaign were reactive. If the BJP has botched up GST (which it has), what is the Congress’ alternative? What is Congress’ alternative for BJP’s crony politics and resulting model of ‘development’? As I have suggested earlier, the opposition’s response to demonetisation too had to be nuanced along these lines rather than being just negative.

4. As an example of the above, note that in Bihar, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad provided strong state-level leadership, and Nitish’s “seven promises for Bihar” allowed the Mahagatbandhan to set the agenda of the campaign. Neutralising Modi’s rhetoric is crucial ( Nitish and Lalu did this brilliantly) but it is more important to have a positive campaign of one’s own.

5. Personal attacks on Modi do not work. This has been shown time and again. Modi is a master of turning personal attacks around by painting himself as a crusading outsider being obstructed by entrenched interests. As far as possible, talk about issues, nail Modi’s rhetoric on particular issues, but don’t make elections about him.

6. The BJP has mastered the art of controlling the news cycle. As soon as Modi was on the backfoot as his allegations against Manmohan Singh and others began to unravel, the gruesome Rajasthan hacking and burning incident took place to shift the topic of conversation. Having a pliable media certainly helps. However, given that the Congress has now set its social media in order, it must be relentless in pursuing and pinning down the BJP, rather than allowing the latter to set the terms of discourse.

7. Rahul Gandhi has, at long last, rebooted his image. He needs to persist with the focus, fire and wit he has shown during the Gujarat election. His image is still a work in progress, but today, it is far better than what it was even six months ago. The momentum must not be lost. The immediate ground for Rahul Gandhi to continue showing his mettle is the ongoing winter session of Parliament. Rahul Gandhi must drop his reticence and lead the Congress from the front in the Parliament.

8. The Congress should put the BJP under pressure on Modi’s outrageous comments about former PM Manmohan Singh (virtually accusing him of high treason by conspiring with Pakistan to influence the Gujarat election), and consistently raise rural distress, the botched GST implementation and rampant unemployment in Parliament.

9. The Congress would’ve performed significantly worse without the alliances it stitched together with Hardik, Alpesh, and Jignesh. Going forward, the Congress needs to be proactive in finding and nurturing allies.

The Gujarat election remained a tale of ‘so near, yet so far’. However, post-2011-12, when the Anna movement was orchestrated to discredit the UPA-2 regime, the Congress once again has some momentum on its side. It should not be squandered. Vast tracts of India (the 69% who didn’t vote for Modi in 2014) have pinned their hopes for 2019. They must not be let down.

Image Credit: Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Ritwik Agrawal is a philosopher in training at the University of Missouri. He has taught at St. Stephen’s College and the Young India Fellowship.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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