Rahul Gandhi Cannot Win Gujarat, But Here's What He Must Prove

Published: October 27, 2017 16:43 IST
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It is supremely unlikely that the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress will win the Gujarat election in December. There was a point early on in Narendra Modi's tenure when one politician from that party told me firmly that its revival prior to 2019 would start when it won back Gujarat. If that was wishful thinking then, it would be frankly unimaginable now.

But then, given the unlikelihood of the Gandhi Congress upsetting Amit Shah's well-oiled machine in Gujarat, we are faced with two questions.

First: why is the Bharatiya Janata Party seemingly pulling out all the stops? And second, why is the Gandhi Congress showing such enthusiasm?

The BJP's efforts are visible for all to see. By the time Gujarat's voters decide, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have made an apparently endless number of trips to his home state. Money is flowing like water. The Election Commission broke from usual practice to delay the announcement of polls in the state, and the BJP took advantage of this perfectly coincidental event to shower goodies on Gujarat. Hilariously, even the GST rate on khakra was reduced.

In the most recent sign of this frenetic energy, a recording of Modi speaking to a party worker in Vadodara has been "leaked". (We know the recording is authentic because Modi himself tweeted it, and also because nobody would make it up.) The Prime Minister urges the worker, Gopalbhai Gohil, to ever greater efforts. He does his version of his greatest hits: "Ever since the birth of the Jan Sangh, we have been abused"; "We have given our blood and sweat for the welfare of our people"; and, of course, "They had called me 'maut nu saudagar', do you remember?" The recording has "gone viral", of course, meaning a lot of people are tweeting about it and sending it on to others via WhatsApp, and some of those people might not even be members of the BJP IT Cell.

Meanwhile, the Gandhi Congress is showing an energy that is most unusual for an organisation which, if it were an animal, would most resemble the extinct Giant Sloth. Rahul Gandhi has also "gone viral" once or twice - including a clip of him berating a television news reporter, which is, in my opinion, a ridiculously easy way to gain a few retweets. His speeches have carefully hewn to a clear message ("no jobs", "small enterprises good") and he has even come up with a Modi-style acronym or two ("GST = Gabbar Singh Tax") that has got a bit of traction. He has gone to a temple or four in order to indicate that his party is not "anti-Hindu", which I have always thought is a bewildering allegation to level at a party whose leaders of the first and second rank are almost overwhelmingly openly religious and Hindu. Then there are the stories about Amit Shah's son's company - they may not have had a lot of substance to them, but they do lend themselves to WhatsApp-ready graphics. And the Gandhi Congress has shown surprising agility in reaching out to disaffected groups, including the Patidars. The BJP may have thought it had an easy shot to discredit both sets of people when it leaked footage of Patidar leaders meeting the Opposition, but it seems that turned out to be something of an own-goal.

So what is going on? Why all this activity, on both sides, for something that is surely a foregone conclusion? One possible answer is that it is not about victory, but about limiting the scale of the BJP's victory. Something less than 120 seats, this theory goes, will be seen as a defeat for Modi. I don't believe that is it, though. Anything more than a noticeably narrow victory will be easily spun by the BJP. After all, to defeat anti-incumbency after all these decades, and without a prominent sub-national leader at the head of the state policy, will be a tremendous achievement, and can easily be sold as such.

No, the answer lies deeper. It is, I think, more revealing of where and what India's two largest political parties are at this point in Modi's first term. For the BJP, dominance is an end in itself. Modi and Shah have no first gear when it comes to politics. They are always in overdrive. Every election has to be fought as if it is a battle for survival, even when it so evidently isn't. We in India are not accustomed to perpetual electioneering, but this is what Shah and Modi have introduced to us and is perhaps their greatest innovation. You could argue it allows little time and mental space for governance, but that is not the point. The point is that it is this single-minded focus that has allowed the BJP to reach a point where it runs so many major states and the Gandhi Congress has been reduced to two, Karnataka and Punjab. The point is that it is far from clear what, if anything, can be done to take us back to an easier time in the past when elections were not things that our leaders were always preparing for. Sometimes I wonder if Modi's fondness for the concept of simultaneous elections is not a plan to ensure that every BJP MP and MLA receives votes because of Modi, and instead is simple nostalgia for a time when he did not have to think about campaigning all the time.

As for Rahul Gandhi and his party, the explanation is, I suspect, a little more complex. They may have no chance of winning Gujarat, but then they at the moment have no chance of winning 2019, either. Very simply, they have hit rock bottom. Earlier, the Gandhi scion and some in his party could have sat back and thought that the party could wait Modi out, and that India would inevitably turn back to them -- remember, Gandhi once said his party was the country's "default operating system". It is possible that they have finally realised that this is no longer true. If they don't try and fight almost impossible battles, then they will not exist as a credible political force long enough to outlast Modi. The Shah-Modi BJP may not last forever, but as of now, they look like they will achieve their aim of a "Congress-mukt Bharat" before they go. For the Gandhi Congress, this energy is not I think a battle for revival, it is a battle for survival. They are not looking to win, they are simply trying to look like a credible opposition. For even along that limited axis, they seemed to have been failing earlier.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

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.

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