Urban jitters for Congress in Gujarat
Ask any Congress leader what the party’s main problem is in Gujarat, the next battlefield after Uttar Pradesh, and the unanimous reply is the inability to win urban seats.
Asked what the party has done to cure this infirmity, the unanimous reply is: “Nothing”.
Senior Gujarat leaders said the urban seats – around 60 out of the 182 – have been impossible to win for around two decades. “Our response for the upcoming election is fascinating. The Ahmedabad city (party) president resigned two years ago. There has been no replacement so far. The city chiefs of Surat, Rajkot, Baroda have also been given the impression that they will be changed. They are sitting idle, awaiting the change,” a Congress leader said.
When a top state party leader was asked if this was true and, if yes, why it was so, he said: “This is true. There has been a delay because of lack of co-ordination. But the appointments should happen soon.”
But this leader contested the perception about weaknesses in urban seats. “First, there are around 40 (such) seats, not 60. We have gained in municipal elections and hope to snatch some seats from the BJP.”
Several other leaders said that after the post-mortem of the 2012 Assembly poll defeat, it was decided that the candidates in urban constituencies should be declared at least a year in advance. Gujarat will go to the polls in December and, with barely nine months left, not even the organisational apparatus is in place. Another leader said: “The same is true of tribal areas, our traditional stronghold. Once the BJP wrested those seats from us, thanks to the ceaseless work by RSS outfits, we withdrew.”
The Congress, out of power in the state since 1990, fancies its chances this time for two reasons. One, Narendra Modi is out of Gujarat. Two, its domination in rural areas is complete. Of the 31 zila panchayats, the Congress won 24 last year. But in urban areas, the BJP won all six municipal corporations – Ahmedabad, Surat, Rajkot, Vadodara, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar. Of the 56 municipalities in small towns, the BJP won 40.
The urban-rural divide in terms of political affiliations in Gujarat is not open to dispute. But Congress leaders concede they cannot oust the BJP solely on the basis of rural domination as urban seats provide the rival a decisive advantage. In the 2102 election, the BJP won 15 of the 16 seats in Surat, 15 of the 17 in Ahmedabad, three of the four in Rajkot, both seats in Gandhinagar, all five in Baroda and all two in Bhavnagar.
This means 37 of the 41 seats in big urban centres went to the BJP. “We made gains in municipalities last year but that was primarily because of Patidar (Patels’) anger. The BJP has worked seriously on the Patidars after removing Anandiben Patel as chief minister. They are contacting every influential Patel leader to whittle down (quota protest leader) Hardik Patel’s influence. In comparison, our work in urban areas is negligible,” the leader said.
The BJP has won urban seats even in Muslim-dominated areas.
A former Congress MP said: “The Dalits rarely vote the BJP but when they recently faced a social boycott, we failed to stand up for them. That’s how (Dalit) activists like Jignesh Mavani are born. In urban areas, we have never tried to seriously engage with the youth to explain how communalism was dangerous and Modi did nothing for the poor.”
Most Congress leaders are, however, still hopeful of pulling it off this time, though they admit the massive victory in Uttar Pradesh has given the BJP a psychological lift. But it is difficult to find a leader from Gujarat who doesn’t prefix ‘if’ while putting across their viewpoints – ‘if we put our house in order, if top leaders stay united, if decisions are taken quickly.”