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

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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