If power begets more power, so does powerlessness. If a party stays in the opposition continuously for a very long period, the probability of its coming to power declines after every election. Enfeebled and bereft of political will, one fine day, it might find itself pushed to a marginal role by a brand-new political entrant and large-scale desertions from its ranks to other parties. This is how Congress was reduced from a ruling party to an irrelevant force in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Tripura during the last three decades. Meanwhile, Congress has been a major party — first or second party — in about twelve medium or large states during the same period: Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Karnataka, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and undivided Andhra Pradesh. Its principal opponent is the Bharatiya Janata Party in most of these states.
Gujarat is the only state where Congress holds the record of the longest, uninterrupted stint as an opposition party. Congress won a majority back in the 1995 Gujarat election. Interestingly, with 55.5 per cent of votes and 149 seats out of 182, it was the biggest electoral victory any party has ever achieved in the state. Since then, the party has lost seven consecutive assembly elections and is staring at the eighth defeat in the current one.
Nearly one-third of the electorate in Gujarat, under 40 years of age, has no real memory of the Congress rule in the state. They can identify Congress only as an opposition party. Therefore, the Congress workers toiling in a mysteriously subdued campaign for the current election can’t talk about or show relatable success stories of the party’s rule in the state. They have no choice but to talk about the actual or perceived failures of the BJP government. To their misfortune, such talk fails to strike a chord with Gujarat’s voters, two-thirds of whom are pretty satisfied with the performance of the BJP government, as the latest Hindu Lokniti-CSDS opinion poll data indicates.
Hence, Congress’ performance in this election can be easily predicted. It might do better than the BJP only in the north Gujarat region, where the votes of Thakore and Chaudhari communities, combined with Dalit and Muslim votes can enable the party to pose a formidable challenge to the BJP. Likewise, it might stay afloat in 27 constituencies reserved for the Scheduled Tribes based on its traditional support and the recent agitation led by its firebrand MLA Anant Patel for Adivasis’ land rights after the Centre’s Par-Tapi Narmada river-linking project. Even then, the defection of veteran tribal leaders like Mohansinh Rathwa to BJP and the notable work for tribal welfare carried out by the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad, an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate, could make a dent in Congress’ tribal vote bank.
Giving safe passage to BJP
In the rest of the state — particularly in the central Gujarat region — Congress is likely to be far behind BJP, more than it was in 2017. That is because the small portion of the Patidar votes it could garner is now lost due to defection of the Patidar reservation movement leader Hardik Patel. The grant of ten per cent quota to economically weaker sections by the BJP government is also a major cause.
Congress might also not win any of the 66 urban and semi-urban seats it has never won during the last three decades unless AAP causes substantial damage to the BJP’s urban vote bank – an unlikely occurrence except in some seats in Surat city.
When Congress blames Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) for being BJP’s B-team, the latter too accuses the party of the same role: hobnobbing with the ruling party in Gujarat and giving it a safe passage on critical issues.
Congress has no answer when Asaduddin Owaisi of AIMIM asks, “Who had stopped Congress from defeating the BJP, and why had they failed to defeat them for nearly three decades? Congress must first answer this question.” He further rattled the Congress for its silence on issues of Muslims in Gujarat and for simulating BJP’s Hindutva rhetoric.
Kodak, Nokia of Gujarat
Is Congress staring at the prospects of becoming a Kodak or a Nokia of Gujarat politics and possibly the politics of India? The American giant Eastman Kodak Company commanded more than 80 per cent market share in photographic films and cameras as late as the 1990s. But the market share fell to seven per cent within a decade and ultimately the company filed for bankruptcy and moved to other businesses on a much-limited scale. Likewise, Nokia, the Finnish Telecom corporation, was a world leader in mobile handsets in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, the brand collapsed when it was faced with Android OS and smartphone technology competition.
Several reasons account for the near wipe-out of Nokia and Kodak from the market — failure to recognise the importance of new products and address consumer expectations, persistence with the traditional product designs, refusal to innovate, destructive internal competition, organisational inertia, skewed and suspicious attitude of the leadership meant to benefit some individuals rather than the organisation as a whole, inefficient and opaque management and so on. Most of these reasons also apply to the Congress in Gujarat. The party needs to do a fundamental revamp if it wants to avoid the same fate as Nokia and Kodak. Modi’s charisma, BJP’s organisational prowess and Hindutva have inherently altered Gujarat’s political dynamics and the social psychology of its people. Congress is still looking at them from the outdated KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) lens, vainly and endlessly waiting and hoping it would return to power in Gandhinagar someday. However, if AAP manages to secure anything above 10 per cent vote share, it would be impossible for Congress to stop its slide to the margins of Gujarat politics like it did in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi or Odisha.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was the founder of the Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee. He built a solid party organisation during his stint as the longest-serving President of the Gujarat Congress from 1920 to 1945. Narendra Modi has made the world’s tallest statue as a memorial for the indomitable Sardar. Taking a jab at the Congress, he has been urging its leaders to visit the statue’s site and even hold the Congress Working Committee meeting there. The irony of the Congress’ dogged refusal to see the Sardar statue at Kevadia should not be lost. The answer to the question why and how Modi’s politics succeeds in Gujarat and Congress failure too lies somewhere inside this irony.
Amit Dholakia is a professor of Political Science at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)