There is a sudden spring in the Congress’s step. The party’s newly-elected President Rahul Gandhi has described the assembly election results for Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat as “good” despite having lost both the states to the BJP. The most obvious explanation for this is that the expectations are low.

Since 2014, when it dropped to third or worse position in ten major states accounting for 320 Lok Sabha seats, there has not been a single election where the Congress has displayed signs of political recovery that include rebuilding credible leadership, vision, strategy, ideology and organisational strength.

Finding right partners

So, even when the Congress puts up its best-ever performance in Gujarat in the last two decades, BJP President Amit Shah can still claim with a certain level of credibility that there is “absolutely no doubt” about his party’s victory in the 2019 general elections. Senior BJP leaders have stuck to ridiculing Rahul Gandhi, contemptuously dismissing him as their “best asset”. Besides the routine mocking and calling names, the more substantive criticism of the Congress President is that he is steering the Grand Old Party leftwards. The BJP takes delight in the fact that Gandhi has drifted into fringe activism, leaving the middle ground and mainstream for the BJP.

This is where the superficial lessons from elections need to be examined in more granular detail.

The reason why the Congress can take heart from its defeat in Gujarat is that it definitely holds the promise of a strategy for the future. What has been dismissed as “casteism” by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his victory address to the BJP workers is a reference to the alliance forged by Rahul Gandhi with Hardik Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) which helped the Congress immensely in rural Gujarat.

“PAAS aur kapaas” is an apt summary of how the Congress’s collaboration with PAAS which mobilised people on the issue of falling Minimum Support Price (MSP) for cash crops like cotton fetched rich electoral dividends in Gujarat. In rural Saurashtra, the BJP was reduced to its lowest tally since 2002. It was a net gain for the Congress with almost double the number of seats from its three-time average.

In 2002, the BJP won 37 seats while Congress was at 15. In 2007, the BJP tally stood at 38 and the Congress cornered 14. After the delimitation of Assembly constituencies in 2012, the BJP retained its strong presence in the region with 34 seats and the Congress remained at 14. The 2017 elections brought down the BJP’s strength to 23 and the Congress tally increased to double at 30 besides one seat going to Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) at Kutiyana in Porbandar. Saurashtra has 11 districts.

Rebuilding social alliances

So, “activism” of the kind Rahul Gandhi has indulged in his pre-Gujarat avatar (supporting anti-land-acquisition movements, students in JNU) is now tinged with a more serious and electorally tangible endeavour to rebuild social alliances.

Here too, the caveat is that caste as an entity for political mobilisation worked in a region where it articulated genuine agrarian distress. PAAS, which augmented the Congress’s depleted organisational structure in rural Saurashtra, was not as effective in urban Gujarat.

Being the astute politician that he is, the PM was quick to recognise that the traders and those running small and medium business enterprises in urban pockets, a vast majority of whom are Patidars, rejected the Congress’s pitch against GST and demonetisation.

In fact, the urban-rural divide is stark in the BJP and Congress’s relative performance in big centres like Surat, Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Rajkot. These four cities have as many as 54 assembly constituencies and the BJP bagged a staggering 41 seats. In Ahmedabad, the BJP won 15 of the 21 Assembly seats, in Vadodara six out of nine seats, in Rajkot the BJP won six out of eight and in Surat, all 12 seats in the city were bagged by the BJP.

The Patels from Saurashtra, who form the backbone of the textile and diamond-polishing business in Surat, voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in this South Gujarat city. The BJP won even in seats such as Varachha Road, Karanj and Kamrej where Patidars constitute over 50 per cent of the electorate.

Modi promptly dubbed this trend as a “vote for reform”. “Support for BJP shows that the country is ready for reform agenda and every citizen wants India transformed,” said he in the hours following the election results.

A political opportunity

It is entirely possible that the trader and the industrialist with his high stakes and investment became wary of the kind of aggression PAAS volunteers and volatile candidates such as Dhirubhai Gajera showed during the elections.

There were incidents of PAAS volunteers screeching slogans and pelting stones at the BJP election offices in Varachha Road as they rode their motorbikes through Surat. In a city that has seen communal violence and unrest in the past, political stability and security is highly valued. Also, the communal pitch in Modi’s second-phase campaign was essentially directed at these cities.

What is clear is that the Congress is sensing a political opportunity in the growing farm distress and has shown the ability to strike appropriate caste alliances that compensate for its organisational weaknesses. In a heavily urbanised state like Gujarat where the RSS and the BJP are entrenched and the PM’s personal popularity is quite high, this strategy worked in pushing its tally up by 16 seats.

In the big elections scheduled in the coming year, especially more rural states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, farmers’ agitations have already led to violent clashes and protests.

The BJP can dismiss the Congress President and his “activism” as a flash in the pan only at its own peril.

One can expect even more dramatic elections in the coming months.