The BJP always sensed it was in for a tough contest in Gujarat with local discontent boiling up in the last couple of years whether it arose from the Patidars, Dalits or farmers, and it eventually necessitated a change of Chief Minister but Vijay Rupani has proved to be a non-entity in this election. In fact, had either party thrown up a strong chief ministerial candidate, it could well have turned the election decisively in their favour, but during the dozen years of Modi-raj, he cast a shadow so large over Gujarat's polity that it stunted any chance of such a leader rising in either his own party or that of the opposition. For good or bad, this election was always destined to be the Modi Show it has turned out to be.
The Congress started slow in its usually lumbering fashion, losing early on a veteran leader like Shankersinh Vaghela and his supporters, but Ahmed Patel's last-minute win in the Rajya Sabha election in August seemed to rejuvenate the party that otherwise seemed set to be picked apart by Amit Shah's machinations. And then they managed to do the seemingly impossible feat of sewing together an alliance with the three musketeers: Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani, and Alpesh Thakor that provided the Congress a strong, if somewhat contradictory, caste equation as well the energy and enthusiasm that only youth can provide to a campaign. The BJP in return threw everything they had against these three young leaders of the future and their organizations, but they have stood strong throughout, especially Hardik Patel who has seemed to gather strength, confidence and ever larger crowds during the course of the campaign. Rahul Gandhi campaigned extensively as well during this early phase of the campaign, but he directed his attention mainly to economic issues and visiting every temple in sight, while trying his best to stay out of the way of his three young generals who took the lead in the ground battle against BJP across Gujarat. He largely succeeded, apart from the incident at Somnath Temple, though that controversy ultimately betrayed the BJP's nervousness more than anything.
While all this campaign chaos was ensuing on the air waves, a most extraordinary metamorphosis was taking place in Rahul Gandhi. Gone was the uncertain, fidgety scion of the past decade; in his place was a leader who spoke in tones of calm reassurance with a slower cadence. Even his face seemed becalmed, but most important of all, he refused to take the BJP or the PM's bait with personal attacks. After swiftly suspending Aiyar from the party, an action that momentarily wrong-footed the BJP, he proclaimed he would never condone personal attacks against the Prime Minister and would concentrate his attention on talking about the issues of concern to Gujarat voters, but shrewdly remarked that the PM seemed to talk about everything under the sun except these same issues concerning Gujarat's development. This was a Rahul Gandhi who had found his voice; his speeches were on point. Even the anecdotes he told were polished and expertly recited, like in one of yesterday's banned interviews when he spoke of a pujari who gave a shawl to him for Sonia Gandhi. Such an effective transformation by a political leader in such a short period is not something that happens organically. I strongly suspect there is an extremely professional and experienced hand guiding Rahul behind the scenes, someone of a higher calibre than old favourite Prashant Kishor. This metamorphosis began during Rahul's tour of the United States and I would wager that this makeover expert is from there as well, someone with experience in moulding a US presidential candidate, perhaps someone from Sam Pitroda's hometown of Chicago. But that is pure conjecture and I'm sure the media will dig out the truth behind Rahul's new avatar sooner or later.
This could explain the PM's over-the-top rhetoric in recent days: if he loses Gujarat, his hold on his party and government would weaken without question. If the Congress loses in another landslide, it would be a grave setback for Rahul Gandhi at the start of his AICC presidency. A close defeat would be a decent start, but a victory would set him soaring and immediately make him a viable alternate for Modi at the national level.
(Krishan Partap Singh is a novelist and a member of the Aam Aadmi Party.)
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