POLITICS
14/12/2017 12:57 PM IST | Updated 15/12/2017 11:14 AM IST

Win, Lose Or Draw, Rahul Gandhi Has Emerged Stronger From Gujarat

Down, but not out.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters

AHMEDABAD, Gujarat – The 2017 Gujarat Assembly election has turned out to be something of a novelty for 44-year-old Jitender Singh, a government school teacher in Ahmedabad who sold coconuts off a cart on Sundays.

Singh told me that in the run-up to the 2017 assembly elections in Gujarat, he found himself listening to Rahul Gandhi, a politician he had never cared for before. He then considered the Congress — a party he had always dismissed as irrelevant — and eventually made an unprecedented decision.

Singh, for the first time in the 26 years that he has been voting in state and national elections, chose the Congress over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in this election.

"Change is good," he said, smiling and offering me a slice of a coconut in the middle of a busy marketplace in the heart of the city.

This simple sentiment, however, did not capture the intense internal debate which had preoccupied Singh, a soft-spoken psychology graduate who earns about Rs.14,000 every month.

Singh said he was torn between staying loyal to the BJP and going with his gut. On one hand, the Gujarati Rajput believed the ruling party had done an excellent job maintaining law and order in the state. The school teacher valued safety over everything else. "What good is it if I earn 14,000 rupees or 15,000 rupees if I cannot rest easy at night," he said.

On the other, there was nothing the BJP had said or done during the election campaign which had moved him in the slightest. "Let me be honest with you. I've not been hurt by GST so I'm not angry like the traders," he said, referring to the implementation of the Goods and Service Tax this year – a taxation system that unifies state and central sales taxes.

"But I feel it is time for change so that things can improve. Modi ji says there is development but we cannot feel it." He pointed to nearby street lamps that have been broken for months and despite complaints haven't been fixed.

For voters like Singh, small things that make a big difference in their daily functioning often hold the power to influence their political decisions. As a street vendor, the badly-lit street and the apathetic response of the local government bodies have irked Singh. "We used to feel pride in the state but not anymore," he said.

Singh was torn between staying loyal to the BJP and going with his gut.

BJP's star campaigners such as Smriti Irani and Yogi Adityanath, enlisted by party president Amit Shah, have done little to change his mind. Adityanath, who was charged with consolidating the Hindus in the midst of bitterness around GST, has made divisive jibes like Gandhi sitting in the namaz position in a temple.

In the past three years, the BJP has gone from strength to strength campaigning on the twin tracks of development and Hindutva. Still, Singh tells me that he found Adityanath's line of attack to be at odds with Modi's famed development pitch.

Gandhi however had piqued his interest. "I have never given him much thought but it was unkind to make fun of him, call him pappu," he said. "It has taken him a long time for him to improve but he has done good work in this election."

We used to feel pride in the state but not anymore.

David versus Goliath

Singh is what political analysts like to call the "floating vote," voters who might have loyalties but are susceptible to change because they are not ideologically rooted to a party. They play a key role in turning the tide where caste and religious allegiances are set in stone.

The Congress versus BJP contest in Gujarat is a bit like David taking on Goliath. In one corner, there is the Congress Party, weakened in mind, body and spirit after being out of power since 1995, but still ensnaring the BJP in its toughest electoral battle in two decades.

In the other corner, there is the well-oiled election machinery of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Whether the Congress loses or wins the election in Gujarat, there can be little doubt that Gandhi has emerged a stronger leader from the grueling campaign in the BJP bastion, just as he is taking over the reins of his party. This in turn has raised expectations of a reversal in the beleaguered party's fortune and stymieing the BJP's dream of a Congress-mukt Bharat.

Gandhi has emerged a stronger leader from the grueling campaign in the BJP bastion.

Political analysts have pointed out that the Congress Party's task was made easier by the profound anger that already existed over demonetization and the implementation of the GST, but long-time observers of Gujarat politics say that Gandhi managed to channel the anger before it dissipated, fending off heavy hitters like Adityanath from hijacking the conversation.

Although, there was nothing much the Congress could do to counter the emotional appeal that Modi made on Twitter on the last day of campaigning, invoking everything from the son-of-the-soil sentiment to Gujarati pride. "With the Government of India and Government of Gujarat working together, the strength rises manifold. This 1+ 1 is not 2 but 11 and together we will take Gujarat to new heights," he said.

The outsider in Modi's home state, Gandhi made strategic alliances with other sons-of the-soil like Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani who in the past year have mobilized the Patidar and Dalit communities against the ruling party.

In a balancing act, Gandhi persuaded the young leaders to support the Congress but he was careful not to impinge on their individual identities – a move that would have greatly diminished their USP.

Meanwhile, the perceived bounce in Gandhi's steps has triggered comment, speculation and a whole host of articles in the media.

Political analysts have used many adjectives like "comfortable," "confident" and "mature" to describe the Congress president's visible improvement while addressing rallies. Gandhi himself has drawn a line between harsh and vicious while attacking Modi, insisting that his party members respect the dignity of the PM's office.

Even Singh had noticed it. "That is a good thing he has done," he said.

READ: In The Age Of Competitive Hindutva Politics, Young Muslims Want A Hardik Patel Of Their Own

Battle of promises

Modi is undoubtedly one of the most eloquent and powerful orators India has had, but the Gujarat Assembly election witnessed a role reversal of sorts, with both Gandhi and Patel hitting a fair share of verbal volleys out of the park.

When we spoke earlier this week, Singh recalled chuckling at Gandhi's "Gabbar Singh Tax" quip when he heard about it on the news.

What took me by surprise was Singh finding it hard to recall a single thing that Modi had said which inspired or even amused him.

Modi has fallen back on communal rhetoric, as he does in times of electoral crisis, raking up the Babri Masjid-Ram Temple issue, describing the Congress as "Aurangzeb Raj" and claiming that Pakistan had interfered in the Gujarat election.

Singh, who is not a "kaum-vaadi" (communal) by nature, said, "Pata nahin kya keh rahen hain." (I don't know what he is on about).

In the end, however, Singh's decision to switch sides had nothing to do with Gandhi's new-found penchant for witticisms or Modi's communal tirade. It boiled down to just one reason that was both deeply personal and entirely practical.

Singh's decision to switch sides had nothing to do with Gandhi's new-found penchant for witticisms or Modi's communal tirade.

In fact, Singh made up his mind only last week after reading the salient points of Congress manifesto in a Gujarati newspaper.

Singh, who for the past ten years has been hired to teach on contract, was delighted to read that Congress planned to end the contract system in government jobs and make contract workers permanent.

"I was very happy. The two most important things for me is security and stability. I always have a fear at the end of 11 months that I won't have a job. It is a very stressful until the contract is renewed again. You never really know," he said. "A permanent job will bring a lot of peace."

Singh was delighted to read that Congress planned to end the contract system in government jobs and make contract workers permanent.

READ: 'Muslim Vote? Does Muslim Life Even Matter In India,' Asks A Gujarati Doctor On Election Day

Story of manifestos

The Congress and BJP manifestos also tell a little story of how both parties approached the election.

The Congress Party's manifesto was the outcome of a month-long exercise, which involved telecom entrepreneur Sam Pitroda gathering inputs from stakeholders across Gujarat. The final document covered a lot of ground, from the big-ticket items like quota benefits for the Patels to issues like extending the runway in Surat to make it an international airport, a longstanding demand of the Surat Chamber of Commerce.

In what Congress considers to be its masterstroke, the party has promised to introduce a bill in the State Assembly for Patidar quota under Article 31(c) of the Indian Constitution. Any such bill would go back to the BJP-majority Lok Sabha at the Centre and, according to the party's reading of the provision, be protected from judicial scrutiny.

The Congress and BJP manifestos also tell a little story of how both parties approached the election.

In contrast to the document which the Congress released, four days before the first round of voting on December 9, the BJP came out with its manifesto one day before people headed to the polls. While borrowing heavily from its 2012 manifesto, the BJP did not set any new targets or promise fresh schemes.

It would appear that the Hindu nationalist party was relying almost entirely on the oratory of its most skilled political performers to carry the election. They may well have succeeded in Gujarat.

And the Congress' manifesto may be "constitutionally and financially impossible," as Finance Minister Arun Jaitely pointed out in his Facebook post, but it clinched Singh's vote.

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