Baroda: At the MS University of Baroda in Gujarat, a group of student activists affiliated with the Congress' National Students Union (NSUI) are planning their schedule for the day. Most are locals, but some young men have come in from Rajasthan and Uttarakhand as they usually do at election time. They have been tasked by the party to campaign door to door for next month's assembly elections, a big change, they say, from other elections.
"We were going door to door, and these people said to us - we're seeing the Congress for the first time in 20 years,'' said the 24 year old. That the students say is the refrain all around and also - Is baar fight hai (it's a fight this time).
Not only is Congress vice -president Rahul Gandhi campaigning aggressively across the state, he is also deeply involved in ground level strategy for the elections, in which he hopes to uproot the BJP which has been in power in Gujarat for the last 22 years.
The Congress has commissioned at least three rounds of professional opinion polls. These surveys, a strategic tool used by BJP chief Amit Shah to construct winning campaigns in state after state, look at the "winnability" of each potential candidate. Congress leaders refused to speak on record on this, only saying, "We have a more robust system that is data based.''
Mr Gandhi has also placed in the screening committee for candidates a key member of his team, former lawmaker Meenakshi Natarajan and has brought in two others from his core team with a non-traditional political background. For one of them, this is the second election after Punjab as Rahul Gandhi's points-person, while the other (both asked not to be named) has been a Rahul Gandhi aide for many years, but will be handling a state election for the very first time. They are both trusted Rahul men and have an unbiased approach to the state, party sources said.
"What used to happen before was that local leaders would ask for ticket and recommend people based on their own gains. They wouldn't necessarily look at winnability. Some got into arrangements with the local BJP to field weaker candidates,'' explained a party insider. This time, he said, apart from surveys, feedback has been gathered from every level in the party and then has been transmitted through the key team members to Mr Gandhi. This way, the chances of the Congress putting up "dummy candidates" is minimised, it was felt.
'In previous years, everyone knew that the BJP was going to win, but some BJP leaders wanted record margins. They would pay off their opponent to sit at home and not campaign at all. That way it was a win win for both - the winner got a larger victory margin and the losing candidate also benefited,' the Congress leader said.
Obviously, many of the local Congress workers aren't too enthused. The student workers confirmed that an unwritten rule to field a fixed number of Youth Congress and NSUI members has been scrapped. "All these quotas are gone now,'' they said. According to one of the team members, the quota was not applied in the Punjab elections, which the Congress won, its solo victory in many months.
One of the most visible differences in the Congress' campaign in Gujarat this time has been the party's lack of focus on Muslim voters. One party strategist said they sent some representatives to leaders of the community asking if they were upset with Rahul Gandhi's many visits to temples, being called a soft Hindutva approach to woo Gujarat's Hindu voters. "They told us, we are with you, go get the others,'' he said.
A Vadodara party worker said in the past, the Congress' Muslim candidates would face a challenge from independent Muslim candidates propped up by rivals to divide the votes. "This time the community has decided not to fall prey to these games,'' he claimed, though another colleague said he was sure independent candidates would be put up this time around as well. '
As the party readies its final list of candidates, the question many want answered is whether it will reflect Mr Gandhi's temple visits and be like the BJP's selection of candidates in previous years when it has fielded no Muslim candidates.
"There is only one criterion for ticket - winnability,'' said a member of the Congress' strategy team for Gujarat.
Voting for Gujarat's 182 assembly seats will held on December 8 and 14. Results will be declared on December 18.