The Congress vice-president struck a chord as he attacked demonetisation and unemployment in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.
Nearly 50 days ago Rahul Gandhi got the BJP’s goat when he smartly handled awkward questions put by members of a select audience at the University of California at Berkeley. Over the next few days, his visit, initially ridiculed by the BJP following reports that he was visiting the United States to attend the Artificial Intelligence Conference, consumed more airtime than he was normally granted on television till then. When the social media was flush with sarcasm that Rahul had required artificial intelligence for not possessing any of his own, Sam Pitroda clarified that his itinerary didn’t include this conference in San Francisco. Rahul Gandhi returned and didn’t let the momentum slip in Gujarat, where he had campaigned before heading to the US. The Congress vice-president struck a chord as he attacked demonetisation and unemployment in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. Since his return, Rahul has shown remarkable consistency that has confounded even his most ardent of admirers. In the process, he has also forced BJP leaders, including Mr Modi, to bend their backs more than ever over the past 22 years. Yet they have so far failed in reversing public sentiment. Increasing crowds at meetings held by Rahul Gandhi, Hardik Patel and even Jignesh Mevani are pointers to this. If the soon-to-be Congress president can hold his own for the next 40-odd days and continue making the right moves, he stands a good chance of overseeing one of the country’s biggest electoral upsets. But for that Rahul Gandhi must ensure that he commits no hara-kiri and hope Mr Modi and his team commit a blunder or two in panic.
If history has to be written of how the impending Gujarat elections triggered a twist in the nation’s narrative with a surprising verdict, chroniclers will contend that the turning point was the Rajya Sabha election in August. Much water has flowed down the Narmada since then and the top brass of the BJP has already traversed a few thousand kilometres in the state. Initially, when the first indications of the BJP’s plans going awry began to surface, most concluded that it a momentary worry and just a visit or two by Mr Modi would be sufficient to even the turf. Mr Modi may still work things around, but there is no denying the drift in a different direction, and not just because the Congress has shown unexpected spunk. Correspondingly, the dividing lines are getting sharper and with caste dynamics yet to reveal their final orientation, the field is increasingly turning unsure for the BJP. Anecdotal reports from the field suggests more and more people are confiding in one another that it imperative to teach the BJP a lesson. Unless Mr Modi is successful in erasing the “anyone but BJP” sentiment, there is nothing but a reverse in store for the party.
Besides the six-pronged challenge that Mr Modi faces, which this writer listed in an earlier column (October 21), the BJP also faces worry from the growing coagulation of social forces as symbolised by the assertions of the three debutants — Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor — that their primary objective is to defeat the BJP. This adds to the anti-BJPism spreading across the state. There is the additional factor that the thrust of the BJP’s campaign — that life under BJP rule was qualitatively better than when the Congress governed the state — is likely to be lost on a big chunk of voters. Almost 2.25 crore voters out of a total of 4.33 crores are below 40 – and because those below 35 were just 13 or younger in 1995, when the last non-BJP government was in office, they have no memory of the benchmark that the BJP is talking about to claim that it has done a good job with vikas. Instead, people have their own benchmarks — life when Mr Modi was chief minister and after that. Voters with no memory of the distant past are going to judge the BJP for what it has done in recent years. Worryingly for the BJP, the sentiment on this score is not upbeat given the twin economic dampeners of demonetisation and the GST rollout. More frightening for the BJP is that urban youth voters appear to be turning against the party given the high cost of education and paucity of jobs after securing these expensive degrees. For these young voters, many of whom are first-timers and this category was so far attracted to Mr Modi, the choice will be shaped by hardships they face to become professionals. It must be kept in mind that the failure of Hardik Patel’s sister to get a government scholarship despite high marks got him on the path of agitation. Personal disenchantment with government policies is common among young people in Gujarat though very few have taken to politics because it is viewed as a path only for those with the “right” connections. The divide between the old and young among Patidars is not restricted to the community, but is likely to surface more visibly once the elections come closer.
It is commonly believed that whenever the BJP and its leaders are unsure about electoral support, they take recourse to whipping up communal passions. Mr Modi’s infamous kabristan-shamshaan ghat statement during the polls in Uttar Pradesh is cited as evidence of the BJP playing this option whenever it thinks the dice is not rolling in its favour. But using this card in Gujarat this time will not be easy as the BJP has always harped on its riot-free record in states where it was in power, and Mr Modi will risk a blemish at his own cost. Moreover, despite deep-seated prejudice against Muslims, Hindus in the state don’t have any immediate “issues to be settled”. The Congress has served its cause by not publicly wooing Muslims because options for the community are limited. The Congress has been tactful so far and set up this game. The BJP is consequently now much less certain about the public mood.