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How Congress won Gujarat

By Amberish K Diwanji in Delhi
May 15, 2004 23:31 IST
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If victory for the Congress, in tandem with its allies, is sweet, the Congress party's unbelievable victory in Gujarat must be the sweetest of them all.

After all, Gujarat was considered the BJP's bastion. It seen as a state where voters only thought of religion while voting.

The state had been virtually written off by almost all. The BJP boasted it would capture all the 26 seats. Opinion and exit polls alike said the Congress would win about two to four seats; and the Congress itself began this battle with the primary intention of retaining the five seats that it held in the state.

In the final analysis, the party won a thumping victory, winning 12 seats, a victory hailed as perhaps the most important of them all, since it was not just winning the votes but the voters' mind also.

The BJP lost a third of its seats, crashing from 21 to 14. So shocked was Chief Minister

Narendra Modi by the result that for 24 hours after the results, he refused to comment on it.

After all, it was Modi who had in the December 2002 assembly election given the BJP its greatest victory ever in the state, and the embers of massive riots that had broken out in the state in March and April 2002 appeared to still be simmering.

So what did the Congress do right?

The first thing the party high command did was to make necessary leadership changes at the top. The Congress high command decided that from its end it must place an individual in charge of one state only. The past practise of giving one person two big states was stopped.

Former Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was in-charge of Gujarat and Chhattisgarh, and he preferred to be in charge of the latter.

In fact, not many were willing to take charge of Gujarat, seeing it as a lost case. The charge was given to Prithviraj Chavan, a Rajya Sabha member and a common face on television espousing the Congress case, and who initially knew little about Gujarat.

The second major change was to replace the Gujarat unit president Shankarsinh Vaghela with B K Gadvi, who belongs to the Other Backward Classes (as does Narendra Modi).

This assured a huge chunk of support of the OBC, a rising segment that has begun to challenge the hegemony of the Patels and the so-called upper castes.

Chavan and Gadvi set to work, seeking a formula for victory more than two years after the Gujarat riots. The formula was local issues, and huge anger at the BJP for its abysmal failure at governance.

The party high command also decided to play a different role. During the December 2002 assembly polls, the BJP portrayed itself as a party for the Hindus and claimed the Congress was a party that would only help the Muslims.

To avoid this simplistic Hindu-Muslim equation, the Congress decided to make it a contest of the candidates. The move paid rich dividends.

The other aspect was choosing the correct caste combination. "The candidates were selected very carefully, keeping in mind the entire social fabric of the state in mind," explained a source close to the high command.

Chavan, given a free hand in selecting the candidates, brought in new faces to take on the BJP. The gamble would pay off.

The party worked hard at getting the right combination of Patels, OBCs, Kshatriyas, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes.

But the party was unable to field an upper caste due to last minute hassles with the Nationalist Congress Party, and keeping its image in mind, it also had to field a Muslim and a woman, both of whom lost.

"It was an election of the (Congress) candidates versus the (BJP) party," Virji Thumar, the Congress candidate from Amreli had said recently.

For instance, Thumar harped on how the BJP had failed to provide water in Amreli; the BJP candidate Dilip Sanghvi spoke about the party and Vajpayee. Result: Thumar won handsomely.

And then the crucial task: getting the party workers to unite and put their best foot forward. The assembly rout had demoralised the party workers, who were also extremely divided into factions. Chavan toured the state extensively to push up the morale.

Few central leaders visited the state, with one exception: Sonia Gandhi addressed four rallies; three of them helped the candidates of those constituencies win. Clearly, her foreign origin was not an issue in this state.

The Congress has won in all the regions: Saurashtra -- west, north, central, and south. And what is even more gratifying, the party has won in 92 of the 182 assembly constituencies that make up the state's 26 parliamentary constituencies.

"The party could have won much more but the workers really didn't work that hard simply because they could not believe that we had any chance. If they had even an inkling, we could easily won at least 3-4 more," said the source.

The Congress lost one constituency (Dhanuka) by a mere 300-odd votes and it lost Vadodara simply because an independent spoiled the Congress chances.

Finally, what appears to have helped the Congress was Modi's utterly foul language. At rally after rally, he kept abusing Sonia Gandhi. But he appeared to have crossed all limits of decency when at one such rally, referring to her son Rahul he called him a 'hybrid', a reference to his parents' different religions and nationalities.

Many believe this was the straw that broke the camel's back, turning away hundreds of women and others, who were simply disgusted by his filthy language.

Incidentally, many in the BJP also believe that Modi's foul language turned off millions of voters, especially women, not just in Gujarat, but across India. And the fact the Sonia Gandhi refused to reply to the insults only aided her stature.

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Amberish K Diwanji in Delhi