For a short while this morning, it seemed as though Congress would prove the pundits wrong and make history in Gujarat, where votes are being counted for Assembly election 2017. Around 9 am, the tally stood at BJP-82 and Congress-70, which was pretty shocking given the incumbent party's running start. After all, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, has been a BJP citadel and a laboratory of its brand of politics for over two decades now.
By 9.15 am, Congress actually pushed ahead, with a 5-seat lead over the BJP. When news broke of current Chief Minister trailing by 4,246 votes in Rajkot West, celebrations kicked off at the Congress party office in Ahmedabad.
But it was all short-lived. Latest trends suggest that the BJP is well on its way to form the government in Gujarat for the sixth consecutive time. According to the Election Commission's figures, BJP is leading in 105 seats-13 seats more than what's required to gain majority in the state-and Congress in 70.
The victory may be the BJP's, but Rahul Gandhi has undoubtedly been the show stealer. The newly anointed president of the Indian National Congress-he took charge just two days ago-left no stone unturned to challenge the BJP's organisational might in Gujarat. The Congress has rarely shown such energy and enthusiasm on ground and on the social media in recent times as was on display during the Gujarat Assembly election. And he led the campaign from the front.
When the election campaign began, Patidar leader Hardik Patel looked as the main challenger to the BJP and Modi. But, by the time it ended, the Gandhi scion nearly established himself as the principal challenger. He stayed in Gujarat for 21 days and 15 nights during the Navsarjan Yatra, covering politically crucial constituencies during the run up to the election, held in two phases on December 9 and December 14. He visited 135 Assembly constituencies and covered another 42 indirectly during this Yatra, reaching out to wider segments of society, including farmers, traders and tribals.
Significantly, he braved BJP criticism to visit at least 25 temples, thus ending BJP's exclusive claim on Hindutva. He got the message across that that he is a "devotee of Lord Shiva" and, unlike his predecessors in the Congress leadership from his family, he would not hesitate to display it in public even at the risk of being labelled as a "soft Hindutva" politician. This new PR strategy went a long way in influencing the traditional Hindu voters of Gujarat. Moreover, Gandhi avoided mentioning Muslims specifically during his election campaigns, which helped in dispelling the popular notion that the Congress works for the "appeasement of Muslims".
So vociferous was his election campaign that the BJP was shaken enough to bring out its big guns. Modi-who was the state's chief minister for 12 years before donning the PM's hat-was not only forced to address as many as 34 election rallies in his home state, but rely on poll optics like arriving on a seaplane to grab headlines. Gujarat Assembly election was perhaps the first occasion when the Congress' social media campaigns were more talked about than that of the BJP, and Gandhi was the man behind it all.
He has also proactively positioned himself as an accommodative leader, which will help him in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 irrespective of the outcomes in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh today. The Gujarat election essentially pitted OBC leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani against Patidar leader Hardik Patel. The latter has been campaigning for a quota for Patidars in Gujarat either under the OBC category as a separate quota but the OBCs are against such a provision because they fear this will affect their chances of employment and education. Dalits and Patidars have also been in conflict in the state. But in the run up to the election, Gandhi managed to bring them all together and into his own camp, which is a pretty big achievement.
Last, but not the least, Gandhi emerged as the better man in the acrimonious elections. While Modi, true to form, launched a direct tirade against the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress leaders gave it back in equal measure, Gandhi personally stayed away from such insinuations. Media reports suggest that after PM Modi responded to the Congress stand that "Vikas Gando Thayo Chhe" (Vikas has gone crazy) by saying "Hu Vikas Chhu" (I am Vikas), Gandhi gave a clear instruction to his partymen to dissociate from "anti-Vikas" campaign. He was also quick to crack the whip when Mani Shankar Aiyar made an objectionable comment on the prime minister. The message is clear: The Congress leadership has changed and with it the rules of playing politics.
All this has made a definite impact, as seen in the exit poll numbers. In the India Today-Axis My India exit poll results Congress got 42% vote share in the two-phased Gujarat election, which marked a 3% rise from 2012's predictions, while the BJP roughly maintained its vote share. Admittedly, the BJP's seats has steadily reduced in each assembly election since Modi became the chief minister-from 127 seats in 2002 to 117 seats in 2007 and 115 in 2012-but the ground reclaimed by the Congress in the ongoing polls is thanks to Rahul Gandhi alone. He is the man who stopped the BJP from achieving its lofty target of 150 seats in Gujarat.