Even a half-way decent attempt at trying to challenge the BJP in Gujarat would have been a game-changer for the Congress. It would have galvanised a dispirited cadre which is slowly leaching away from the party after serial defeats and allowed Rahul Gandhi a chance to be taken more seriously as a leader.
So you would reckon that the Gandhi scion and his party are putting in the punishing work required for the elections slated later this year. But that just wouldn't be the Congress now, would it?
As Shankersinh Vaghela, BJP-defector-turned-Congress-rebel, plans a public show of strength tomorrow to gauge how many of the party's 57 MLAs are with him, part of an open debate on crossing back to the BJP, consider the Congress response. Ashok Gehlot, the Congress General Secretary assigned to manage Gujarat, went to his house for lunch yesterday accompanied by Bharatsinh Solanki who heads the Congress in Gujarat and is considered by Vaghela as his main rival.
Speaking to me after the repast on the phone, Solanki said "I still don't know what Bapu's
(Vaghela) problem is. I am a third-generation Congress man and willing to sacrifice anything to ensure that the party wins again in Gujarat. I am telling you for the first time that I have decided not to contest the election and I have taken a decision and informed the party that I am not a contender to be its Chief Ministerial face. Even after all this, if he has a problem, what can I possibly say?"
"A lot of anti-incumbency exists in Gujarat and the whole team is working in the field to ensure that we win. If someone decides not to join the fight, what can I say? Bapu
is so much older than me, I respect him," he added.
Vaghela refused to comment on Solanki's remarks or his plans. His aides say the public show of strength tomorrow (a similar meeting at his house, 7 weeks ago, drew 37 of the Congress' 57 MLAs) will be his answer to the party. Vaghela has reportedly demanded that he replace Solanki as the party president in Gujarat and also be named the Chief Ministerial candidate.
Sources say that the Congress is agreeable to replacing Solanki - not with Vaghela, who is a Rajput, but an Other Backward Caste (OBC) leader like Solanki. Rahul Gandhi was adamant that he would not declare Vaghela the presumptive Chief Minister either. By publicly announcing that all 57 incumbent MLAs are guaranteed tickets, the Congress believes it has taken the sting out of Vaghela's rebellion.
Vaghela's aides laugh at this and say that MLAs want to win and be a part of the government and Delhi leaders are predictably missing the chance to capitalize on anti-incumbency after nearly two decades of BJP governance. Vaghela has made his displeasure with Gandhi public. He has missed appointments with him, unfollowed Gandhi on Twitter, and held parleys with BJP chief Amit Shah without any attempt at disguise. The BJP in turn is keen to break the Congress party - after all, Gujarat is a prestige battle for both Shah and Narendra Modi and a victory that is accompanied by a Congress split would be exceptionally sweet.
BJP sources claim that Amit Shah's dream is to be Gujarat Chief Minister himself, but for now, of course, nothing is more important than Mission 2019.
"Instead of frittering away all his energy in UP, where it was a four-cornered contest, Rahul Gandhi should have made his focus Gujarat, where we are the only party up against the BJP, especially after the Patidar agitation and the Dalit protests in Mehsana," said a Congress leader in Gujarat. "Rahul Gandhi should have parked himself in Gujarat for a year and personally led the agitation. We tried to convince him but failed. So now we look at the familiar possibility: defeat."
In fact, Hardik Patel, the young leader of the Patidars, was rebuffed by senior Congress leaders when he sent feelers which is quite inexplicable, say local Gujarat leaders who were the go-betweens.
Said one of them wryly, "Even at this age, Bapu
has such a huge appetite for power. Our leader seems to have no will to power. See even in the case of Goa, where we turned victory into defeat."
Senior Congress leaders say that even rumours such as the one that senior leader Ahmed Patel's son Faisal will be contesting Gujarat elections, which are utterly untrue, are not countered by the Congress. "They (the BJP) use these things to dismiss us as a dynastic party and we don't even counter them. Faisal is not contesting yet, this was a big issue" said one Congressman.
The Gujarat elections are due before December, and as of now, Gandhi is slated to take over as the president of the party in October. Unless a miracle happens in Gujarat, his presidency may begin with another defeat.(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.