Buoyant Congress counts on getting caste calculus right in Gujarat

Gandhinagar: For the first time since 1995, the Congress is energetic and fancying its poll chances in the home turf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah.
The optimism stems from the crowd response to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s public meetings over the past two months in which he has taken on the prime minister over demonetization and troubles with the Goods and Services Tax (GST), in a bid to woo traders and the middle class — two key support bases of the ruling BJP.
The addition of Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader Alpesh Thakor and possible support from Patidar quota protest leader Hardik Patel and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani have also raised the hopes of a turnaround for the opposition party after 22 years.
“The Congress is no longer in defeatist mood. There is no doubt great resentment against the BJP. But the challenge for the Congress will be to tap this popular resentment and convert it into votes,” said Ahmedabad-based political analyst Prakash Shah.
Congress leaders say the BJP downslide in Gujarat started in 2015 when the ruling party suffered its worst loss in local bodies’ elections and insisted that Modi’s “Gujarat Model” has lost its steam.
Leaders say the exit of veteran leader Shankersinh Vaghela has not had any major impact on the Congress at ground level and the absence of Modi has appeared to have worked in its favour. A victory in the local body elections in December 2015 was the first sign of a Congress revival as the opposition party won more than double the number of panchayats than the BJP, though it was defeated in urban areas and municipal corporations.
“The BJP’s position has worsened due to the note ban and GST. These two decisions have ruined small and medium traders and the middle class as well,” senior Congress leader Arjun Modhvadia said. “People of Gujarat are fed up with BJP and want to teach them a lesson in this election.”
“Had Modi’s Gujarat Model worked, they would not have been wiped out in local bodies’ polls. There is an overwhelming support for Congress from across Gujarat now and that will be reflected in assembly elections,” Modhvadia said.
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Party leaders say a hard-fought victory for Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha elections in August this year helped the party pick up momentum. The win, that came after a clutch of Congress legislators quit and a late-night hearing at the election commission, buoyed the party.
A win in Modi’s home state will give a major boost to the Congress’ revival efforts at the national level ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Congress leaders privately say they are assured of support from Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. With the addition of OBC leader Alpesh Thakor this week, the Congress also hopes to win over the OBCs, Patidars and the Dalits that almost make up 60% of the state.
But some in the Congress say they are aware of the danger of going back to the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) strategy that brought the party to power in 1980 with a record victory but alienated the dominant castes, who went to the BJP.
“There is unrest among all sections of the society. Patidars, tribals, youth and farmers have launched agitations and are on streets against the BJP rule. For us, all castes and sections are same and we will take everybody along,” former state Congress chief Siddharth Patel said.
Other experts say the Congress’ campaign has been boosted by anti-incumbency against the ruling BJP.
“Even Jyoti Basu (of the CPI-M) lost in West Bengal. There is visible restlessness among the youth and several other sections of the society,” said Gujarat-based political analyst Vidyut Joshi.
The Congress has not declared its chief ministerial candidate and party leaders suggest this work to their advantage and checks factionalism as well. “There is no such tradition in Congress. The entire Congress is united and we all will ensure that BJP bites the dust this time,” said Patel.

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