In what will cause fresh jitters to the Modi and Shah combine, a loose alliance of the three young Gujarat community leaders – Hardik Patel of the Patidar caste, lawyer-turned-Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani, and 39-year-old OBC leader Alpesh Thakor who will contest the Gujarat election on a Congress ticket – has come to an informal understanding with the Congress.
The “loose alliance” brokered by senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel was put on public display on Saturday when Thakor had a surprise 45-minute meeting with Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and Ashok Gehlot, Congress Secretary General in charge of Gujarat.
Tomorrow, the alliance will be showcased at a rally organised by OBC Unity Front in Gandhinagar which will be attended by Gandhi. Gehlot told me that Thakor will merge his outfit with the Congress tomorrow as well. This comes after weeks of hardball negotiation, burning the midnight oil and Patel and Gehlot parking themselves in Gujarat.
It is a shot in the arm for the Congress as both Modi and Shah are fighting to signal their absolute dominance over their home state after 22 years of uninterrupted BJP rule. The party has pulled out all the stops in Gujarat. Modi is visiting every week with fresh SOPs on each trip and dramatic denouncements of the Gandhi family and their “hatred for Gujarat and Gujaratis”. Yogi Aditynath, newbie Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, is also on a non-stop whistle-stop tour with speeches on “Love Jihad” and the “terror threat posed by the Rohingya refugees”. Adityanath is attracting large crowds on this part of his makeover as the pan-Indian “Hindu Hriday Samrat” (emperor of Hindu hearts).
The BJP’s nerviness is evident in the fact that it has pressed into campaign Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister. “Do you remember the last time in any election we fought, including Delhi MCD, when we had a campaigner other than Modi? I can’t remember when Swaraj last campaigned for the party, other than the Delhi election which we lost,” said a BJP leader. Hardik Patel’s announcement that he will not contest the election but work against the BJP has also delighted the Congress; he will campaign for its candidates in his Patidar strongholds. In a pre-emptive strike, BJP chief Amit Shah poached 70 of his aides yesterday, but Patel is unmoved. In his characteristic drawl, he told me, “Let him take turn coats. The Patidars will not forgive BJP and he cannot make me defect, can he?”
Mewani, who came in to his own after the leaderless Dalit agitation in Una following the filmed thrashing of four young Dalits, is the third part of the Congress encirclement of the BJP and bid to take Gujarat. Patel and he have come to an understanding and he will also be roped in to campaign for the Congress in constituencies where Dalits play a deciding role.
Interestingly, the three young leaders have an excellent equation among each other and talk often. In return for supporting the Congress they will get a say in seat distribution. This pragmatic policy was insisted on by Ahmed Patel after he managed to fight off Shah’s attempt to humiliate him and was re-elected to the Rajya Sabha in August. That close shave served a reality check to the party and led to it showing uncharacteristic flexibility in dealing with the trio of community leaders.
Gujarat is a two-party state, yet the Congress in nearly three decades has not managed to get the five extra percentage points that would dislodge the BJP. The reality is that even now, it has no credible face to take on Modi in his stronghold. By putting all its eggs in BJP defector Shankersinh Vaghela’s basket for all these years, the party was just offering a derivative me-too approach. Clearly, the voters preferred the real thing as opposed to a generic “Hindutva”.
Despite Vaghela’s dramatic exit from the Congress, senior leaders are breathing easy, in part because of the new understanding with leaders like Mewani. The Congress is also trying to keep its campaign focused on the inert economy and GST hitting small traders, the backbone of the Gujarat community. Congress leaders point to a traders’ rally in Surat where the slogan was “Hamari bhool Kamal ka phool” (We erred in picking the lotus or BJP election symbol).”
“Let’s face it, the default mode for the Gujarat voter is BJP. They maybe angry but are still likely to vote for the BJP. We have to ensure that the anger translates into votes for us,” cautioned a senior Congress leader.
As Rahul Gandhi takes over the Congress from his months, how he navigates big election choices in Gujarat will be used to either reinforce or delete the perception that he is indecisive at crucial moments and awkward at ally management.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)