Congress back to Square One in Gujarat
In December 2017, the party restricted the BJP to 99 seats, its lowest tally in the state in 22 years and also registered its best performance in two decades, winning 77.
From having come within striking distance of ousting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat in the 2017 assembly polls to losing a clutch of legislators, and finally getting wiped out in the recent bypolls, the Congress party’s fortunes in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi continue to slide.
In December 2017, the party restricted the BJP to 99 seats, its lowest tally in the state in 22 years and also registered its best performance in two decades, winning 77. The party won praise from election watchers for putting up a strong fight and even restricting the BJP from reaching the psychologically important three-figure mark in the 182-member assembly.
But over the past three years, the Congress has lost 12 of its legislators to the BJP, which has reduced its strength to 65. On the other hand, the BJP has increased its tally to 111. Chief minister Vijay Rupani described the victory in the recent assembly bypolls – where the BJP won all eight seats, which were all previously held by the Congress – as a “trailer” of the 2022 assembly elections.
Gujarat Congress functionaries primarily blame the central leadership, especially in-charge Rajeev Satav, for the slide from 2017 onwards, and say the state unit is too weak to take on the BJP.
Across India, in bypolls to 58 seats across 11 states, the Congress won just 12 ,while the BJP won 40, comfortably retaining power in Madhya Pradesh and getting a majority on its own in Manipur. The Congress held 44 of these 58 seats earlier.
This was the third by-election in Gujarat since the 2019 Lok Sabha polls necessitated due to the switching of Congress legislators to the BJP.
In bypolls in May last year, the ruling BJP won all four seats in Gujarat. This was followed by another by-election in October last year on six seats, also caused by the defection of Congress legislators, including firebrand backward caste leader Alpesh Thakor, to the BJP. While the BJP and the Congress won three seats each, the grand old party managed to defeat Thakor.
This reverse happened just when the Congress party looked to be making an impressive run -- starting with the election of senior leader Ahmed Patel in August 2017 to the Rajya Sabha. Patel prevailed in a tense fight with the BJP nominee Balwant Singh in an election that spilled past midnight and saw the Congress sequester its lawmakers in a resort to prevent any attempts of poaching.
In December that year, the party fought the assembly elections with senior leader and current Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot as the general secretary in-charge of Gujarat and Bharatsinh Solanki as the state unit chief. Though the BJP eventually won the elections in what is known as its pocket borough but the Congress managed to restore some pride. “All of that has been lost in last three years. We are back to square one,” said a functionary.
Satav, a former Youth Congress president and considered close to former party president Rahul Gandhi, was appointed Gujarat in-charge in March 2018, a few months after Gehlot took over as Rajasthan chief minister.
“It’s been over a year now that we don’t have any state committee, right from booth level. The state leadership is also moving in the hands of one family,” said a second Gujarat Congress leader who refused to be named.
“Satav has hardly toured the state after assuming the charge and even could not bring the warring factions together,” he added. But Satav said the criticism was unjustified. “No doubt, we have lost by-elections on all seats and we will do in-depth introspection and take the required corrective measures after evaluating the reasons. But the BJP misused all the state machinery to ensure its victory. We have seen ruling parties winning all by-elections barring Telangana and Haryana,” he said.
Ahmedabad-based political analyst Prakash Shah blamed the weak leadership for the Congress party’s debacle in the by-elections. “The Congress leadership has failed to keep its flock together and the BJP is also readily accommodating them. This shows that the Congress leadership is weak and its legislators are political pliable,” he said. Gujarat was not the only disappointment for the Congress in this round of assembly bypolls. It also failed to win any seat in the bypolls in UP, Karnataka, Manipur, Nagaland, Odisha and Telangana.