Opinion | Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Will Congress' New Zeal Pay Dividend in Gujarat?
For anyone following the Congress’s Gujarat campaign closely, the departure from tradition is writ large.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi greets supporters during a rally ahead of Gujarat Assembly elections, at a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, on November 11, 2017. (REUTERS/Amit Dave)
New Delhi: For anyone following the Congress’s Gujarat campaign closely, the departure from tradition is writ large. A constant effort has been made by the party to try and shrug off the tag of a unit that caters to the minorities and believes only in minority appeasement.
The Congress’s Gujarat campaign revolved around the economic distress owing to Goods and Services Tax (GST), demonetisation, and justice to the Other Backward Castes community. The narrative about justice to minorities is missing in Gujarat elections this time around. The Congress seems to be placating OBCs, which possibly is an attempt to course correct itself.
The AK Antony committee report on Lok Sabha debacle did warn saying that Hindus in the country are perhaps distancing themselves from the Congress because of the perception that the party is only interested in welfare of the minority community, a feedback that Congress seems to have taken very seriously, particularly in this election campaign.
The party seems to be giving the impression that it will champion the cause of people from backward castes, and is trying very hard to not fall in the trap of which party represents which religious community.
These elections have been all about treading cautiously and not falling into the trap of religious identity. So far so good.
It all started with the BJP alleging that Ahmed Patel is linked to a hospital that had a lab technician alleged to be an ISIS operative.
The Congress was quick to firefight. Ahmed Patel threatened a defamation suit and also wrote to the Home Minister asking for a detailed investigation in the matter. Since then, the political advisor of Sonia Gandhi has kept a low profile when it comes to campaigning in his state.
Post this began Rahul Gandhi’s temple run in poll-bound Gujarat. The BJP saw red and was quick to link Rahul Gandhi’s religion with polls. From September 25 till the November 29, Rahul Gandhi visited a record 16 temples.
In contrast, from 2009 till 2016, he visited temples roughly about eight times.
The Somnath non-Hindu register entry of Rahul Gandhi, a mistake or a deliberate attempt to push the Congress down the slippery slope, remains unsolved, but it did have the potential to damage Gandhi’s soft Hindutva push. He jumped into the controversy instantly by declaring that he was a 'Shiv Bhakt'. His party called him a janeu dhari (sacred thread wearer) Hindu, producing pictures as evidence.
But the BJP was not taking any of this. Spokespersons were fielded to talk about Rahul Gandhi’s Catholic lineage. Subramaniam Swamy went on to allege that there was a Church within the premises of 10 Janpath, which Rahul Gandhi visits every Sunday.
The Prime Minister brought in history to drive home the point that had it been left to Pandit Nehru, Gujarat would not even have the Somnath temple.
Just went the dust had settled on the Somnath temple controversy, came another self goal.
Kapil Sibal, senior leader and spokesperson of the party, also a Rajya Sabha member representing Iqbal Ansari, a litigant in the Ayodhya Title dispute, said in Court that the hearing on the matter should be deferred until 2019. This was used by PM Modi to his political advantage by alleging that Congress was mixing Ram temple issue with elections. The damage was done.
The Congress tried hard to distance itself from Sibal’s plea in Court, but the BJP was in mood to relent. The Prime Minister raised the stakes and challenged Congress to sack Sibal if it doesn’t agree with his views.
Congress was made to work hard to not fall in the trap of religious polarisation, and had to be careful so as to not disturb the caste equations it has worked out so meticulously by getting Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel on board. The party, ostensibly, did well on that front.
Careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past, Congress, sensing trouble, took a high moral ground and suspended Mani Shankar Aiyar from party's primary membership after his 'neech aadmi' remark against PM Modi.
A Gandhi family loyalist, Aiyar had been in news for all the wrong reasons. First, he invoked rulers of the Mughal dynasty to defend Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as party chief, then followed it up with 'neech' remark.
The BJP, to its advantage, gave the comment a casteist twist. Congress was not to have any of this and and cracked the whip on Aiyar.
Perhaps lessons learnt from 2014, when just days before Lok Sabha elections, Aiyar took a dig at the then Prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, calling him a chai wala, a comment that backfired.
Campaigning for the first phase ends today. But the 2nd phase of polls has about five days to go. The campaign for the same will get shriller and the challenge before the Congress will be to tread cautiously on the slippery slope.
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