Will a re-energised ‘Brand Rahul’ be enough to take on the Modi juggernaut?




Rahul Gandhi has been touring Gujarat and interacting with local partymen for a few days

-Abdul Hafiz Lakhani

There’s no denying that the Congress has had its moments in Gujarat, but it lacked the final punch. December 2017 Gujarat election is as good an opportunity as it can get for the Congress to regain lost ground in the state.

PM Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah are fighting the economic fallout of demonetisation; GST has adversely impacted small scale industries in the state; and Patidar leaders like Hardik Patel are still brewing a rebellion. Most importantly, for the BJP, this will be the first assembly election, the party will fight without Modi as its chief ministerial candidate.

Gujarat’s political importance is greater this time because both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are from the state. Mr Modi retained his Varanasi seat over Vadodara after being elected from both the constituencies in 2014 out of political considerations. Since then, he repeatedly staked claim to being a UP-wallah.

Yet, Gujarat undeniably remains his political home and it is imperative for the BJP to at least match, if not improve, the margin of victory it secured in UP. Anything less would be seen as evidence of the Modi wave waning. The BJP needs to emphatically underscore that its political dominance continues despite lackluster stewardship of Anandiben Patel and Vijay Rupani and their collective failure at tackling the reservation agitation by Patels and checking dalit unrest.

This can be best done if the BJP betters its performance of 2002, when the party won 127 seats with a vote share of 49.85 per cent. In the two subsequent polls with Mr Modi as chief minister, the BJP won 117 seats in 2007 and 115 in 2012 with declining vote shares of 49.12 and 47.85 per cent. Moreover, Mr Shah has already raised the stakes by setting a target of 150 seats. Failure to realise his own objective will be politically humiliating for Mr Shah as well as his boss.

To ensure a smooth ride back to power, Mr Shah kicked off his campaign early (September 10) with a town-hall programme in Ahmedabad replete with questions put on Facebook, Twitter and the party website. Not to be outdone, Mr Modi planned an entire jamboree for two days with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in tow.

For the first time in history, a state guest visited India without stopping at the national capital. Almost three years after his failed public wooing of Chinese President Xi Jingping, the itinerary of Mr Abe’s visit to Ahmedabad underscored Mr Modi’s electoral compulsions. While the laying of the foundation stone of the high-speed bullet train project was planned with the obvious intention of impressing Gujarat’s voters, the Prime Minister’s decision to pay an unprecedented visit to the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque was most striking.

It needs recalling that in 2011, when he embarked on a Sadbhavana programme, Mr Modi was offered a skull cap by a Muslim cleric. His refusal sparked a controversy and several critics viciously criticised Mr Modi for insensitivity towards religious minorities. Nitish Kumar, ironically in Mr Modi’s camp now, sarcastically stated that in India leaders must at times wear a skull cap and occasionally allow a tilak to be put on the forehead. Mr Modi did not make any such gesture when inside the mosque, but the symbolism cannot be missed because he could have taken the visitor to any other monument that is representative of Ahmedabad’s heritage.

Surveys have shown that Muslim support for the BJP in Gujarat has slowly grown over the past decade and half. Although its extent is not extensive, Mr Modi senses an opening and thus his overture. But his decision to send a soft signal to Muslims demonstrates that he is on shaky terrain insofar as his core constituency is concerned. Mr Modi followed his visit with Mr Abe with another visit recently when he inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam and also addressed a public meeting in Amreli in the crucial Saurashtra region, that Hardik Patel has been pounding hard. Although both meetings were government functions, Mr Modi’s political messaging was unambiguous.

(Abdul Hafiz Lakhani is a senior journalist based in Ahmedabad. He is Editor of Gujarat Siyasat.)

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