The Congress lost Gujarat, but has shaped a narrative around the Narendra Modi government’s alleged “crony capitalism” that could dictate the contours of political discourse in the months leading to the next Lok Sabha elections.
The Congress performance in the state is also likely to enthuse other Opposition parties to take on the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), within and outside Parliament, and boost their collective preparedness for the big battle less than 15 months away, with the Congress as lynchpin of Opposition unity.
There are other positives the Congress can pick from the Gujarat defeat. It recorded its best Assembly performance in the state since 1995. It lost at least seven seats where its margin of defeat was less than the number of votes the Nationalist Congress Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party candidates received.
Under Ashok Gehlot, the Congress election campaign matched the BJP blow for blow in planning and execution, as the party focused its meagre resources on 45 swing seats. It ran the BJP close in terms of seats won despite a vote share almost eight per cent lower.
Rahul Gandhi, its new president, led the campaign from the front and showed consistency that surprised opponents and forced the PM to respond, particularly on how the Centre was “helping a handful of big business”.
On Monday, Gehlot said the BJP failed to respond to issues raised by the Congress during the campaign. He indicated the Congress would continue to demand answers from the BJP on alleged irregularities in the Rafale deal, business dealings of BJP chief Amit Shah’s son Jay Shah, rural distress, lack of jobs for youth and inflation.
In a tweet, Rahul Gandhi thanked Congress workers for making him proud. “You are different than those you fought because you fought anger with dignity. You have demonstrated to everyone that the Congress’ greatest strength is its decency and courage.”
Opposition leaders busied themselves with finding positives for the battles ahead. In a tweet, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee congratulated “Gujarat voters for their very balanced verdict at this hour”. “It is a temporary and face-saving win, but it shows a moral defeat for the BJP. Gujarat voted against atrocities, anxiety and injustice caused to the common people. Gujarat belled the cat for 2019,” she said.
Saddled with a state leadership that was largely ineffectual, until several of them losing their seats, the Congress also showed rare flexibility in putting in place a rainbow coalition that included Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and Other Backward Caste leader Alpesh Thakor.
Other departures from the past included Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples, marginalising the role of party senior Ahmed Patel and nearly forcing out Shankersinh Vaghela. The party also reached out to a cross-section of activists and party leaders working on the ground in its elaborate exercise to draft the manifesto.
As the new party chief indicated, the Congress would see major changes in the hierarchy, with several younger leaders likely to get prominence. But it is reinvention of the party’s ideology, as reflected in its Gujarat manifesto, which gives a clue to the Congress under Rahul Gandhi.
The manifesto spoke about a Gandhian-Ambedkarite politics under a larger narrative of secularism. It rejected pseudo-nationalism, talked of constitutional values being at the centre of discussions and recognised the space for people’s movements to raise voice against injustice.
Consistent with Gandhi’s recent speeches, the manifesto spoke of reducing farm distress, focusing on micro, small and medium enterprises, moving away from “big factories, big projects and foreign direct investment” and spoke of gross national happiness as a better indicator to measure economic growth than gross domestic product.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi had a few surprises up his sleeve for his opponents. Photo: PTI