What is killing the resurgent Congress of Gujarat?
Ambition, greed and fear: the story of the falling apart of the Gujarat Congress – once a resurgent force in the coastal state. Between 2018 and 2019, seven Congress MLAs defected to the BJP, and two were sworn-in as ministers in the Rupani government. Ever since the announcement of the Rajya Sabha elections in March, eight more Congress MLAs have resigned from the party.
On Friday, Gujarat Congress MLA Brijesh Merja resigned. The day before, on June 4th, two Congress legislators - Akshay Patel and Jitu Chaudhary – submitted their resignations to the Gujarat assembly speaker Rajendra Trivedi. Back in March, in two days, five Congress legislators submitted their resignations to Speaker Trivedi.
The grand old party is receiving blow after blow, even during the pandemic. It has failed to fortify its turf. Each of these resignations is connected to one Rajya Sabha election which is now scheduled for June 19.
Of the four seats in the fray, the Congress has fielded candidates only in two. Both Bharatsinh Solanki and Shaktisinh Gohil are heavyweights. And yet, in all likelihood, the defeat of one of the Congress candidates is now inevitable.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is silently watching the Congress bleed and dying a slow death in Gujarat, while its own MLAs are hammering one nail after the other in the coffin.
Not long ago, in December 2017, the Congress was the resurgent force in Gujarat. Its slogan Vikas Gando Thayo Che (development has gone mad) became the catchphrase not only in the election-bound coastal state but also across the country. With three young Turks – Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor – on its side, the Congress was hopeful of victory.
“We (Hardik, Thakor and Mevani) were leading the campaign, the Congress was marching along. And the BJP was even able to set the agenda,” Vadagam MLA Jignesh Mevani told Asiaville. “For the first time, the Opposition as a whole was taking on the mighty BJP and was even in a dominant position. They were forced to respond to what we were doing and stating. So much so that leaders like Amit Shah had to hold press conferences against us and personally me.”
Indeed, after two decades of poll debacles, victory had appeared plausible for the Congress in Gujarat, which is the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The surge was so strong that the party managed to touch 100 seats on counting day.
Even though the performance of team Rahul Gandhi was impressive, the Congress failed to clinch the fort from the BJP. While the Congress had won 77 seats, its ally Bharat Tribal Party (BTP) managed to get two seats and Mevani emerged victorious as an independent candidate. The Congress+ had 80 seats under its belt.
Meanwhile, the BJP had managed to retain the majority by winning 99 of 182 assembly seats. But it was the saffron party’s worst electoral performance in the last three elections.
In June 2020, two and a half years after this stellar performance – statistically speaking – the Congress in Gujarat is facing a bloodbath. Fifteen of its MLAs have already resigned from the party. That is nearly 20 per cent of those elected in December 2017.
Those who have abandoned the ship to join the incumbent BJP include seasoned leaders, politicians with business interests, and identity politics activists. With every exit, the saffron party – which had won the last assembly election with a thin majority – is strengthening its position in the House.
Sources say that the lack of ideological commitment and the “BJP’s deep pocket to poach” is the reason for these resignations. Commenting on the post-election decimation of the Congress, independent MLA Mevani claimed that those leaving the party are either driven by fear or greed.
Meanwhile, the principal opposition party is accusing the BJP of arm twisting the Congress legislators with business interest or pending legal cases.
However, there are others like Gujarat-based activist Sagar Rabari who argue that the lack of ideological commitment of Congress leaders towards the party makes it easier for the BJP to poach them.
“The tickets in the BJP are distributed on the basis of the ideological commitment and work done for the organisation. However, the Congress had offered tickets to several such leaders who had no ideological commitments towards the party,” Gujarat-based activist Sagar Rabar said. “Those abandoning the ship were more loyal towards the opportunist leaders and had vested business interests.”
A senior journalist based in Ahmedabad said, “BJP has been using the brute force of the state machinery to buy the Congress MLAs. The blame is less on the Congress and more on the incumbent party. One side they (BJP) offer money to buy these MLAs, on the other side Congress legislators are threatened by the state agencies. Obviously, the legislators prefer to jump over to the side with money and power.”
These are common allegations put forward by the Congress leadership in the state.
Manhar Nagji Patel, senior Gujarat Pradesh Congress (GPCC) leader and 2019 candidate from Bhavnagar, told Asiaville, “Whenever the Rajya Sabha elections approach the BJP starts indulging in poaching our MLAs. Why is the speaker allowing this?”
He further says that many of those in politics have business interests and the BJP is using the state machinery to exploit the loopholes in the business interests of such MLAs.
“The BJP has been threatening our legislators through different state agencies. Our former Jamnagar MLA was threatened before he quit the party. Our MLA Purushottam Sawariya – who was facing charges in the irrigation scam – was told directly: if you want to stay safe join the BJP else you can go to jail,” chief spokesperson of Gujarat Congress, Manish Doshi told Asiaville. “And the moment one joins the BJP, they become pure. No further investigation or legal action is taken against such MLAs.”
When asked if the Congress field tainted and opportunist leaders, Doshi responded, “We can’t measure what a human is capable of doing. The BJP is using fear and money power to poach our leaders. However, the Congress party is working on a long term and short term plan to make sure we don’t have to face such defections.”
Meanwhile, responding to these allegations, Gujarat BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandya said, “It’s not that Congress is falling apart only in Gujarat. Their legislators have left the party in different states. And the main reason behind the resignations is that their neta, niyat and niti (leadership, intention and policy) is not in the national interest and neither in the interest of the voters. It is for the Congress to introspect why their leaders are resigning.”
Pandya said that his party has not even played the role of a catalyst in these resignations.
When asked about the timing of the resignations, he said, “What could be the best suited time for the disgruntled Congress MLAs to register their protest than an election? Through these resignations, they have vented their anger towards the leadership and factionalism in the party unit.”
Pandya claimed that the BJP is yet to decide whether they will accommodate eight MLAs who resigned from the Congress ahead of the Rajya Sabha election.
Gujarat model of "poaching"
When one looks closer at the numbers and fates of those who switched sides, the real face of the Gujarat model reveals itself.
In 2018, the Congress witnessed one resignation. In 2019, in two batches, six legislators, including OBC leader Alpesh Thakor, left the party. Each of these joined the incumbent BJP.
Ministerial berths: Five-time Congress MLA Kunwar Bavaliya was the first to resign in July 2018. Within hours of quitting the Congress, he joined the BJP and was sworn in as a cabinet minister in the Vijay Rupani government.
Bavaliya is not the lone case. On March 8, 2019, senior Congress leader Jawahar Chavda resigned from the Manavadar constituency. A day later, the Congress turncoat became a minister in the BJP state government.
Legal cases: Purushottam Sawariya, the Dhrangadhra MLA, had resigned from the party in March 2019. Notably, the Congress legislator was arrested in connection with a micro-irrigation scam in October 2018. The Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi claimed that the BJP had used pending cases against him to poach him. Sawariya was re-elected to the assembly on a BJP ticket.
Failed shots: The Congress leaders and Jignesh Mevani openly claim that OBC Alphesh Thakor had switched sides to get a ministerial berth in the Gujarat government. It was due to his personal ambitions that he abandoned the Congress ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Thakor had defected to the BJP along with his close aide and MLA Dhavalsinh Jhala. However, both Thakor and Jhala lost the by-polls from their respective seats – Radhanpur and Bayad – in October 2019.
Eight MLAs who have resigned from the Congress since March are yet to join the BJP. However, their exit has made Congress’ second candidate’s chances of victory in the Rajya Sabha election bleak.
To win both the seats, they need 74 seats in the house. Before this flurry of resignations, the party had 73 MLAs and the support of three others.
With Brijesh Merja’s resignation on Friday, they have been reduced to 65 seats in the Gujarat assembly.
According to sources, as the Rajya Sabha election approaches, more wickets could tumble. “There are two to three Congress MLAs who are still in touch with the BJP. They could switch sides now or in the coming months,” a source tracking the developments closely said.
Patel argues that when those drawing government salaries such as doctors, police officers and sanitation workers are even denied a vacation, how can the Speaker accept the resignations of public representatives during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Congress falling apart = no alternative to BJP
One of the three young Turks who created a wave against the saffron party during the 2017 election agrees that there is a sense of disappointment in 2020.
“While there is a disappointment but again it comes down to the greed of Alpesh,” Dalit leader and MLA Mevani said. “Had the Hardik-Jignesh-Alpesh combination continued fighting together, by now we would have been in a much better position. But the greed to become (a) minister quickly drew Alpesh towards the BJP.”
Meanwhile, activists like Sagar Rabari say that these poaching and resignations are creating a sentiment in the voters that there is no alternative to the BJP in Gujarat.
These defections create an impression that irrespective of who you vote for, they end up with the BJP, he said.
Notably, the Congress seems to have given up the fight in the Rajya Sabha polls. A similar crisis and alleged poaching attempts were smartly averted by the party when senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel was running for the Upper House in August 2017. They literally snatched away the Rajya Sabha victory from the BJP.
When Gohil and Solanki are in the fray, the Central leadership has gone into hibernation.
The blow after blow to the Congress in the coastal state could end up killing zealous cadres cultivated by Rahul Gandhi in the run-up for the 2017 polls, reducing the possibilities of thwarting BJP’s prospects in the state.
“The leadership crisis at the centre also reflects in the psyche of the (Congress) MLAs. They don’t feel confident about the future of the party and their own political career and hence it drives them towards the BJP,” Mevani said.
However, Congress leaders like Manhar Patel and Manish Doshi reject such claims.
Meanwhile, Patel chose to raise a pertinent question regarding the urgency shown by speaker Trivedi in accepting the resignations of Congress legislators.
He said, “An MLA is answerable for lakhs of voters living in a constituency. How can the speaker accept resignations of the MLAs – who draw government salaries – at a time of a global pandemic? By accepting their resignations the speaker has rendered the constituents helpless for six months.”