Although sections of the media are trying to project the 2017 Gujarat assembly election as a Modi versus Rahul Gandhi contest, it is far from being so. Both have resisted the temptation of making themselves the issue or personalising the campaign so far.
But behind the scenes, they are totally hands-on and taking all decisions connected to the election process. So it has become a battle of minds. Whose strategy will succeed: Modi’s or Rahul’s? It is significant that Modi has taken over the entire planning and strategising for Gujarat. Amit Shah, who has run all poll campaigns so far, ever since Modi became PM, is playing a smaller role this time. The UP election was Amit Shah’s show but Modi has taken over the battle for Gujarat. He has a small group of trusted Gujarat cadre officers in the PMO who are his eyes and ears in the state. They report to him directly and keep him informed.
Shah is not necessarily kept in the loop. Also, Modi has taken to personally telephoning trusted MLAs to get feedback and give instructions. He did not do this for the UP polls. Instead, he relied on Shah to manage the campaign, of course under his guidance and with his knowledge. Interestingly, Modi’s campaign so far has been quite muted, unlike past campaigns which had a high emotional and personal quotient.
Political circles in Gujarat are wondering when Modi will unleash his trademark personalised style of appealing to voters. Will he make himself the central issue of the election, like he has in the past three Gujarat polls? Or will he remain below the radar and refrain from making Mandate 2017 about Modi?
Rahul Gandhi has launched a similar operation in Gujarat. He is touring extensively but has so far not allowed himself to become the issue. Instead, he is concentrating his attack on Modi, demonetisation and GST. But behind-the-scenes, Rahul is very much in charge. He is directly in touch with the three youth leaders who have emerged as the face of the current elections, Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakore.
According to Congress sources, Rahul speaks to them over telephone regularly and plans the Congress campaign in coordination with them. The tasks are neatly divided. Ahmed Patel is in charge of managing local Congress leaders, most of who are his loyalists. Ashok Gehlot is Rahul’s man for all other jobs, particularly the coordination with the three youth leaders.
Congress leaders claim that for the first time, the party is working like a welloiled machine. All have put away their egos and are concentrating on winning the election instead of fighting to be the chief ministerial face of the Congress. They say infighting has almost vanished with the exit of Shanker Sinh Vaghela from the party.
Still, doubts persist over whether the Congress can pull off an upset on Modi’s home turf. It’s formidable task for Rahul who has a dismal track record with elections so far.
An important event in the context of the Gujarat polls went unnoticed. This was the opening of a temple in Rishikesh dedicated to Umiya Mata, the universal goddess of the Kadva Patel community. Modi was present at the opening of the temple and offered prayers there. There was a subtle message in this to the Patidars in Gujarat. Hardik Patel is a Kadva Patel so Modi was clearly addressing his support base. The PM made a strong pitch for support from the leading priests of the Umiyafaith. The temple in Rishikesh is meant for visiting Patidar pilgrims from Gujarat to pay obeisance to their goddess.
It is interesting that of late, some Patidar villages in Gujarat, particularly in the Saurashtra region, have taken to cold shouldering Hardik. Some are believed to have even put up no entry signs, forbidding the young Patel leader from coming in. Significantly, it was after a whirlwind tour of Saurashtra that Hardik issued a statement pledging support to the Congress. If the Patel vote splits, despite Modi’s efforts to woo the Kadva Patel through Umiya Mata, it will make the election in Gujarat a close contest.
Is Ashok Gehlot poised to become Rahul Gandhi’s Ahmed Patel? Congress circles are already speculating about Gehlot’s rising star. Some have likened his position to the role Ghulam Nabi Azad played for both Narasimha Rao’s Congress and Sonia Gandhi’s Congress. Azad was regarded as an excellent election manager and also an important interlocutor with other party leaders. He is known as a good negotiator and has an ability to strike deals with even the most temperamental political leaders. For instance, he played a key role in negotiations with the late Jayalalithaa for Narasimha Rao.
The AIADMK chief was one of the toughest regional leaders to crack. He also managed Sonia Gandhi’s first election bid from Bellary and was instrumental in getting the support of the influential Lingayat community for her. She won that election against a formidable challenge from the BJP’s Sushma Swaraj and entered Parliament for the first time in 1999. But Congress circles also speculate that if Rahul Gandhi pulls off a victory for the Congress with Gehlot’s help in Gujarat, the man’s star will soar and could pitchfork him into the role that Ahmed Patel had played for Sonia.
Patel has been Sonia’s chief political aide, troubleshooter, intermediary with allies and man for all seasons. So, has Rahul found his man in Gehlot? It all depends on the Gujarat result.
The BJP’s post-Diwali media lunch was notable this time for the absence of rush to take selfies with Modi. Unlike past such gatherings, in which journalists made a spectacle of themselves trying to take selfies with the PM, media persons were well behaved this time.
Some did take selfies but the scramble was not as unseemly as it has been in the past. Interestingly, in the absence of Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj, who did not attend the lunch, Nirmala Seetharaman occupied pride of place. She was seated next to Modi on dais.