In Gujarat battle, Congress prepares for 2019 poll war

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi being garlanded at an election campaign rally at Anjar in Kutch district of Gujarat (File Photo: PTI)
Shweta Brahmbhatt, 34, an investment banker, is the Congress candidate from Ahmedabad’s Maninagar constituency – the seat that elected Narendra Modi, the then chief minister, to the Gujarat assembly thrice from 2002 to 2012. Vijay Dave, a doctorate, is contesting on a Congress ticket from the nearby Ellis Bridge constituency.

Both Brahmbhatt and Dave, fielded in the face of resistance from the party rank and file, are making their electoral debut. Their candidature also marks the electoral debut of Rajya Sabha member Rajeev Gowda-led research department of the party in the tumult of elections. Dave heads the research team in Gujarat. Brahmbhatt has assisted the team intermittently in the past couple of years.

The two seats are the case studies for the Congress, particularly its research department, to draw lessons for the bigger battle ahead in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. When the election managers of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are focused on the 45 seats where the victory margin was less than 5,000 votes in 2012, the research department hopes to help the party prepare for the future. The Congress won 11 of the 26 Lok Sabha seats in Gujarat in 2009.

Maninagar and Ellis Bridge are BJP strongholds. The BJP has won Maninagar in the past six elections, and Ellis Bridge in the past five. In 2012, the BJP won 14 of the 16 assembly seats in Ahmedabad. Seats in Ahmedabad, and other urban centres, are where the BJP’s communal polarisation resonates more. But the young voters here have either no memory of the 2002 riots or are disappointed with the BJP’s failure to deliver on the economic front, an internal Congress survey found.

Issues raised by Cong research dept

  • Gujarat ranks 24th in sex ratio
  • Most technical and professional courses now being offered only in private colleges
  • Increased fee burden
  • Gross school enrolment ratio 20% below national average
  • Minimum Support Price increase dipped from 19.7% (2009-13) to 3.6% (2014-17)

These are also the seats where the Congress discovered how deeply its district units and ward committees are compromised. In the absence of support from local party leaders, the Congress has parachuted legislators and Youth Congress leaders from across India to manage the elections. Help from the activist groups sympathetic to the Congress’ world view has also been sought. Mistakes have been a dime a dozen. The rudest was when grassroots leaders in urban areas were found to be conducting door-to-door campaigning for the BJP the very next day after they were sent election funds by the Congress.

But there has also been a silver lining. On Wednesday, Mahila Congress chief Sushmita Dev campaigned for Brahmbhatt and other Congress candidates in Ahmedabad and Vadodara. The response from the youth corroborated the findings of the party’s  internal survey that it needed to focus on the 1.23 million first-time voters of the 43.3 million electorate of Gujarat.

Another 10.1 million are in the age group of 20 to 29, and 11.2 million in the 30-39 age bracket. “Our survey found that younger voters, even in urban areas, don’t have any resonance of the 2002 riots. Their concern is education and jobs,” a Congress leader said. It also threw up another surprising result – the respect among the youth for former prime minister Manmohan Singh. On Thursday, Singh was in Rajkot. It was his second visit to the state within a week.

Whatever the outcome, the Congress is quietly collecting data points for its 2019 Gujarat battle plan. It believes it can repeat its performance of 2009 in urban centres. “I am getting a good response from the youth,” Brahmbhatt said. Research department secretaries Ranajit Mukherjee and Harsh Vardhan Shyam have helped Brahmbhatt and several other candidates stitch an election campaign in the absence of support from the local party rank and file. “Young people, like Brahmbhatt, need to tell the youth about the hoax of the so-called Gujarat model,” Shyam said.

Since November 8, 2016, the day the PM announced the demonetisation decision, Gowda has led his team to ensure the Congress leadership is armed with facts and figures to puncture the Modi government’s claims on the note ban, the goods and services tax (GST), and the economic growth. Months have been spent poring over the Census, households’ surveys, and Central and State Statistical Organisations data to collate data to help the party question the ‘Gujarat model’ and keep the narrative away from the issues of religious identity.

This data and the issues flagged by the research department have been the backbone of the Gujarat poll campaign of the party. From the daily questions that Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi has asked to the PM on the Gujarat model, the crisis in the education and health sectors in Gujarat with privatisation, farm distress and poor social indicators, like malnourishment among women and increased maternal mortality rate, the research department has played an important role.

Gowda’s team of young lawyers, economists, and data crunchers from foreign and Indian universities, and a couple of mid-level politicians, usually operates out of a two-storeyed house near New Delhi’s leafy Lodhi Gardens. Currently, they have fanned out in Gujarat to collect data.

Along with Divya Spandana-led social media and digital communications team, which has turned around the social media narrative for the Congress party in the past couple of months, Gowda-led research department is another team to watch out for as Rahul Gandhi takes over as party president. 

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