This past week, as we travelled for our #ElectionWithTimes programming through the areas of Gujarat that went in for polling in the first phase on December 9, meeting hundreds of people, a few things emerged, clearly. One, there are definite signs of anti-incumbency. Not surprising, after all the BJP has been in power in the state for 22+ years. Two, what overall impact it would have may not be known yet, but Hardik Patel has surely emerged as a major factor. And three, and most importantly, despite the noises created by the Congress, Rahul Gandhi is a non-issue.
Anti-incumbency is an issue. Most lamented the lack of development. This must be seen in relative terms, for Gujarat is visibly more developed than most parts of the country, but the feeling of being let down by their governments was quite strong among the people we met. This angst was most visible in the traditional entry point to Saurashtra: Viramgram in Ahmedabad district, which is also Hardik Patel’s hometown. Once we entered Saurashtra, we encountered the same angry sentiment in Surendranagar and the CM’s constituency of Rajkot West, though we found a more pro-BJP sentiment in Gondal, which is the second-most Patel dominated constituency in Gujarat.
Also, it seemed as if the issue of the leaked ‘Sex CDs’ involving Hardik Patel had not created any negative impact against him. But let me make it clear here: our impressions come from conversations in road-side stalls and dhabas and are anecdotal in nature. They come from people we were randomly meeting and the sample could be biased. Just as it was when we met people at a roadside stall in Surendranagar, where the mood was extremely pro-Congress, before we realized the location was adjacent to the Congress office and most of the people we were talking to were from the party and the most vocal of all was a Congress corporator. Similarly, in Gondal, one local shopkeeper summed up the mood there saying, “We are upset with BJP but not angry.”
In terms of the political outlook, although the Congress is seen to be making gains, its real impact may not be much. While the BJP will find it tough, given the clear signs of anti-incumbency, it is not that the Congress is on a roll. Even its die-hard supporters put their party’s prospects at 50-50: surely not the sentiments of a party hopeful of making a comeback after two decades.
And this brings one to the supposed Rahul Gandhi factor in these elections. Notwithstanding what his party men say, there is none. Of the hundreds of people we met, there was not one mention of their leader. BJP was an issue – whether people were for or against it — development was an issue, but if the Congress expected their young leader to create a buzz, it has failed. Rahul Gandhi has changed his style in this Gujarat campaign and Congress is certainly giving BJP a fight in what is the saffron party’s toughest election yet in the state but the narrative is still driven by whether people are pro or anti-BJP, not by Rahul.
This was in contrast to how the Prime Minister is perceived. While there were enough who were critical of the BJP, not one person spoke against the Prime Minister. Narendra Modi has a persona that is larger than life. People will speak against the party, local leaders, even the current top leadership, but not against Modi. His command over the state and its people remains strong, and there is considerable pride that their man is the nation’s Chief Executive.
And therein lies the main issue. People may not be very happy with the ruling party, but the obvious lack of someone who they can look up to as a credible alternative bugs them no end. As a Muslim gent, who is in the travel trade, I spoke to on the walkway around the magnificent Somnath temple told me categorically that Congress has a better chance here, but mainly due to the wrong BJP candidate choice, adding, “Lekin iska matlab nahi hai ki Congress ki sarkar aane wali hai. Aap solah aane likhwa lo mujhse, Sarkar Bhajap ki banegi.”