For the first time since 1995, the Congress is looking at its best chance yet to wrest Gujarat from the Bharatiya Janata Party and, at the same time, cement the position of its soon-to-be president Rahul Gandhi.
The party is banking heavily on the Patidars’ anger against the BJP, a factor that will be big in the first round of the two-phase polls on Saturday.
At stake for the Congress is a crucial momentum that it needs ahead of state elections in 2018 and the general election in 2019.
A win in Gujarat will boost Congress’s chances of retaining Karnataka — which may have elections in March-April — and ousting its arch-rival from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan later in the year.
The Patel factor
Patels, who constitute 12% of Gujarat’s 60 million-odd population and considered the core supporters of the BJP for the past two decades, are up in arms against the ruling party over the reservation issue. They can potentially influence the outcome in around 60 seats in a 182-member state assembly.
With Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel pledging support to the Congress, the nervousness in the BJP camp is palpable.
The addition of Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader Alpesh Thakor and tacit support from Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani have also raised the hopes of a turnaround for the opposition party after 22 years, of which Modi ruled for 12.
The party face
But, important, it is also a lack of a credible face in Gujarat for the Congress, which has leaders like Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab and Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh. The campaigning, largely, has been around Rahul Gandhi.
Lessons from 2012
Saurashtra and Kutch are crucial for both parties as these have the highest concentration of seats in the first phase. Together, they account for 58 out of the 89 seats going to polls on Saturday. In the 2012 assembly elections, the BJP won 35 while the Congress bagged 20. Of the remaining three, two were won by the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) of Keshubhai Patel and one by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
Hence, a party that wins the maximum seats from the regions could have the leverage to form the next government.
A keen contest will also be witnessed on the 12 seats in Surat, the diamond and textile hub of the country. Here, the Congress is hoping the trading community will vote against the BJP to show their displeasure over demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
For his part, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has campaigned extensively in Saurashtra and south Gujarat, taking on the BJP over issues such as the note ban, GST, job losses, farm distress and its development model. He even coined the phrase “Gabbar Singh Tax” for GST in one of his election rallies.
But as the polling date drew near, the campaign narrative shifted to Gandhi’s temple visits, Ram Mandir issue and political mud-slinging.