We have read editorials and op-eds calling the Gujarat elections a mid-term referendum on Modi magic. Well, every election, even a local body election ultimately morphs into a test of ‘Modi wave’ for some sections of the media, but this time it’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, so that argument might appear valid.
The elections in the Prime Minister’s backyard are also seen as a verdict on two policy related disruptions: GST and Demonetisation. Besides, it will also be made into view of the people on the economic situation of India. Local factors will also be judged such as the so-called Patel rage, the efficacy of the Gujarat Model etc.
The BJP and the Prime Minister have been called “nervous”, “desperate” etc, but in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh elections too, commentators had claimed the same about BJP. Modi is accused of taking the communal line in Gujarat, just as he was accused of doing the same in Uttar Pradesh (when in fact data showed he was correct). And this is again linked to BJP being nervous.
But just because BJP is going all-out all guns blazing, does it mean they are nervous? Or do commentators not realise that is just how BJP fights elections: Going in with all their armory, trying everything in the book? Did these very commentators not “accuse” BJP of running itself as an election winning machine a few months back? So why read “desperation” when they feel this is the inherent character of the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah?
However, in all this scrutiny of Modi, Shah, and BJP, the Congress party seemed to have slipped below the radar.
Let us look at some of the developments in the run up to the elections on the Congress front.
It started with a sprucing up of Congress and Rahul Gandhi’s virtual image. We had shown how seven different mainstream publications had carried virtual fluff pieces in October 2017, declaring that the Congress social media team had arrived. This even when the social media antiques of Congress were getting panned for gaffe after gaffe.
Then came the online resurgence of Rahul Gandhi. From a moderately active account, Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter account transformed into a profile which regularly tweeted. The tone also moved from mild to caustic and acerbic, much like the pre-2017 tweets of Kejriwal. It was claimed that this new avatar of Rahul had led to a massive spurt in his popularity, more followers, more retweets etc. It was eventually found out that this was the doing of “bots” i.e. fake profiles.
Both the above attempts were timed in the run-up to the Gujarat elections.
On the ground, Rahul Gandhi virtually camped in Gujarat. He campaigned extensively, for a non-stop 26 days, with no break. During the campaign trail, he is said to have addressed around 150 rallies and corner meetings, covering 2,600 km by road. Except Uttar Pradesh, one cannot remember such an effort from the Gandhi scion.
The Gujarat Congress campaign was also centered on Rahul, rather than any state leader. The party stayed away from naming any CM candidate, thus by-default centering the election around Gandhi. That, plus his full-time involvement make it possibly the first election where Rahul Gandhi is on the line. In Uttar Pradesh, he was in alliance with the CM candidate, who was definitely the leader of the alliance. Here Rahul is leading the flock.
To make the Congress challenge stronger, they allied with Hardik Patel and the patidaar faction, agreeing to their demands of reservation. The move indicates Rahul Gandhi’s intention to leave no stone un-turned to fight out the BJP. In fact, this could be a sign of “nervousness” and “desperation”, by the same standards media uses.
Next, Rahul Gandhi went for an image make-over. After the 2014 debacle, the Congress party had gone for some soul-searching, asking its cadres whether it came across as an anti-Hindu party. The answer must have been pretty obvious. This, plus the Uttar Pradesh debacle, may have led to a complete change in how Rahul positioned himself on angle of religion. Rahul visited 25+ temples in the campaign, referring to himself as a “Shiva Bhakt”. When the controversy over his religion emerged, his cronies went on the aggressive to declare him a “janeu-dhari” Hindu. This adoption of a overtly Hindu identity is also a major gamble which Rahul has taken.
In his speeches across Gujarat, Rahul also adopted an aggressive stance, trying to make every speech newsworthy. One simple method is to make outlandish claims. These can often morph into plain lies. The sheer number of major lies from Rahul Gandhi’s speeches this election season are stunning (1),(2),(3),(4),(5),(6). Is Rahul naive enough to have lied unknowingly? Or is he a politician trying to do his best, including staking his own credibility to win an election? Or maybe he knew that the mainstream media won’t bother to do any fact-check on his claims. Nonetheless, Rahul Gandhi was leading from the front.
The Congress played another trump card during the campaign. The much delayed elevation of Rahul Gandhi to the post of President of Congress party was announced during the Gujarat elections campaign. One view could be that if they had delayed it beyond elections, and if Congress had lost, it would not make good optics to crown the loser. But then do they have a choice? Irrespective of the outcome, Rahul is the next President. Thus by announcing it in the run up to the elections, Congress played another trump card, to enthuse its cadre as well the masses.
In the process of the elevation, senior Congress leader and party faithful Mani Shankar Aiyar made a few untoward remarks. One of them was the much criticized “neech” remark. The “new” Rahul, as to-be-party-president, took the bold decision to sacrifice the pawn, in order to minimise damage in Gujarat. This shows the extent to which Rahul Gandhi wants Gujarat.
The last Rahul Gandhi TV interview that was seen in India was the now infamous Rahul vs Arnab back in 2014. After that, Rahul has shied away from such occasions. During the UP elections, where the stakes were much higher, Rahul’s alliance partners had given TV interviews, but not Rahul. For Gujarat elections, we saw a “new” Rahul. On the even of the Gujarat polls, Rahul Gandhi gave multiple interviews to multiple TV channels. Once again, Rahul put himself up on the stand, to garner a victory in Gujarat, and that too breaking away from his comfort zone. Further, the same interviews are now facing intense legal scrutiny from the Election Commission. Did Rahul not know he was overstepping the model code of conduct? Or is he just desperate for a win?
His virtual campaign, his on the ground work in Gujarat, his elevation, the temple-run, the interviews, are all examples of how Rahul Gandhi has himself made the Gujarat elections his make-or-break battle. If the Congress loses here, Rahul has absolutely nowhere to hide.
The circumstances too cannot be better: BJP was never so vulnerable. A party facing over two decades of anti-incumbency, a state unit which has not been able to even come close to filling the void of Narendra Modi, other opposition parties like Patidars have aligned with Congress or like AAP, have indirectly asked voters to vote for Congress. The stage is well and truly set.
If BJP under-performs, BJP and Modi can give a host of excuses: national as well as local. What excuse does Congress have if it underperforms? What excuse does Rahul Gandhi have then?
The Gujarat elections are not a referendum on Modi, instead they are Rahul Gandhi’s agni-pariksha.