A comatose Congress, written off four months ago, fought well under President Rahul Gandhi who perhaps for the first time gave a political campaign his all. The alliance with the three "Gujaratke ladkey" - the trio of Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor - unlike the ill-starred "UP ke ladkey" alliance with Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party worked well and ensured the Congress was saved some embarrassment though several top Congress leaders in Gujarat were trailing at the time of writing this column.
Both the BJP and the Congress put on a brave face for public consumption but there was plenty of consternation behind the scenes. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress need to keep up the constant influx of talented outsiders such as the Gujarat ke ladkey because even after three and a half years of Modi's term at the centre, they are simply still not good enough to take on the BJP single-handedly. The Congress leadership had been quietly-bad mouthing Thakor and Mevani. Clearly a big mistake. Gandhi has to ensure fresh blood enters the party and gets leadership status and striking power because state after state remains disenchanted with "entitled dynasts" which is what comprises virtually the entire senior leadership of the Gujarat Congress.
While Gandhi visited a record 29 temples in Gujarat, it did not end his 29-defeats-in a-row. While critics pan Gandhi for indulging in "soft Hindutva" (Finance Minister Arun Jaitley went to the extent of saying voters would prefer the original Hindu party), insiders say that Gandhi is just trying to recalibrate the party's image which is perceived as "anti-Hindu". Said a senior leader, "The BJP has assiduously projected us totally pro minority. And we really don't care about newspaper editorials anymore. We need to win. And we cannot alienate 85 percent of the Hindu vote".
This is also acknowledgement of the fact as to how Modi in just three years of his ascent has changed the rules of the political game completely. All parties now cultivate the Hindu vote openly.
Modi and Shah need to worry as to how a campaign they thought would be a victory march and a triumphant herald of a 2019 sweep forced Modi in to shedding the vikas mien and openly touting conspiracy theories involving the possibly treasonous conduct of former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, former Vice-President Hamid Ansari and former Army Chief Deepak Kapoor. Far from the cake walk originally envisaged by a smug BJP, Modi addressed over 40 rallies, and with a little help from suspended Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar and Kapil Sibal, made the campaign about "insults to him" while challenging the Congress with "Do you want a Ram Mandir or not?"
The fact that Modi had to make the Gujarat election about himself indicates that GST, demonetization and rural distress are serious issues and the BJP needs to address them on a proactive basis. The sharp divide in the rural-urban vote in Gujarat is also a clear marker of this.
The BJP managed to defeat 22 years of incumbency in Gujarat because Modi and Shah gave it their all. Can Gandhi sustain the kind of campaign he ran in Gujarat is a question anxious Congress leaders are asking.
Finally, the Gujarat voters ensured that they sent a message. A party with intelligent political smarts will read it and react quickly.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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