Ashok Gehlot, two-term former chief minister of Rajasthan, is helming the Congress election campaign in Gujarat as the AICC state in-charge. Though he would rather give credit to Rahul Gandhi, it’s being said that Gehlot has breathed life into the listless Gujarat Congress and made it fighting fit. Amidst a break-neck schedule, which includes campaigning alongside Rahul and resolving differences within the state Congress, Gehlot took time out for an exclusive interview to The Sunday Standard in Ahmedabad, where he shared his experiences and hopes.
Excerpts of his conversation with Santwana Bhattacharya:
It’s being said that you have put the Congress back on its feet in Gujarat. What was your ambition while planning: just increasing the number of seats or actually winning the election?
To win, naturally…to win the election and form the government. Let me tell you, Rahul Gandhi’s role in this election, his yatra and campaigning, has been extraordinary. We saw a craze build up among the people—quite extraordinary. Because of that, it became a fight. His speeches have clicked—the message has gone to the people.
What was the message that you think has worked? Why would Gujarat want to look beyond PM Modi?
It was positive messaging. What the Congress would do about education and healthcare — free healthcare up to a level, loan waiver for farmers, housing for all. They’ve seen what the UPA did, what we gave in neighbouring Rajasthan when the Congress was in power. Lots of people from Gujarat used to come to Rajasthan to avail our healthcare programmes and facilities. In contrast, their Achhe Din, the promise of two crore jobs per year, recovery of black money from foreign banks, all promises have flopped. Nothing tangible on the ground…even Modiji’s ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ has been a lot of hot air. The promised investments have not materialized. It was on the showcasing of these that the Modi brand kept gaining. He reached the PM’s position. But that marketing is not working any more — you must have seen that there have been a few empty chairs at Modi rallies. It was on social media as well. That was once unthinkable — earlier he had to just make an appearance and ‘Modi, Modi’ chants would start. That’s not happening, the spontaneous outpouring is missing.
Are you suggesting the Congress is banking on the Modi magic waning?
Not really. We have our own programme and agenda. Our manifesto has clearly stated what we plan to do in terms of job creation, housing, education, price control, healthcare — very concrete proposals. Our manifesto was written through workshops with the people, inclusive of people’s voices. And, yes, whether the media reports it or not, we’re seeing it on the ground— the waning of the Modi magic….
It’s said what Gujarat is for the BJP, Bengal used to be for the Left. But a Mamata Banerjee had to rise from the ranks — literally from the grassroots — to rout the Left in Bengal. Who is your Mamata in Gujarat?
The whole Congress party is Mamata Banerjee here. The whole party is fighting this election as a collective. That’s been the instruction from Rahul Gandhiji and we’ve been following that—fighting this election as a united front, on the basis of collective strength.
That’s euphemistic…there were headlines on Congress infighting. Rumours on (GPCC chief) Bharatsinh Solanki’s resignation threat became so strong that you had to come out with a clarification. Your Surat unit chief had to be persuaded not to put in his papers after the Congress changed candidates under PAAS/Hardik’s pressure.
What you are saying is true. But these were limited to a few incidents, and all them were sorted out. Out of 182 seats, if there’s a problem over two-three seats that’s not a big issue! This happens every time…. By the way, the Bharatsinh resignation thing was a total, unadulterated rumour…he was and is involved every step of the way…
In terms of the first phase, how do you except it to go, particularly South Gujarat and Saurashtra, where it was a tight fight. How much will Hardik Patel be a factor?
The Congress will sweep…
Not the hype. In genuine terms, what are your expectations? In South, you have some problems, plus Surat, Rajkot, meaning the urban seats, are BJP strongholds…
We’re expecting to do well. You’ll be surprised in this election. We’re expecting the erosion of BJP (votes) in every segment, including the urban seats. I would not put any figures, any numbers, but believe me, we’re doing well….
Agreed, the Congress rallies were well-attended and you’re giving a fight. But a buzz is not enough to win an election…the Congress, it’s being said, does not have the organisational wherewithal to pull it through.
No, I don’t agree. We’ve consciously worked at the booth level this time. And, let me tell you, it’s the people who are fighting the election…angry people — farmers, youth, women, even traders, SC/STs, OBCs, minorities. And, the Congress is a people’s movement, not just a political one. It’s tremendous.
In North Gujarat too you have problems with nine seats. It’s being said what you may gain in Saurashtra may be offset by North Gujarat, unless you retain your old tally…your ally Alpesh Thakor’s effigies were burnt…
That’s in a few seats, we’ve managed it. I would instead say that there’s a wave in our favour in North Gujarat. These will be polled in the second phase, on (Dec) 14.
What makes you so confident, despite the bitterness — the verbal spat — of the last few days? Sibal, Aiyar, Ayodhya…it distracted from Rahul Gandhi’s studied focus on the development issue….
The people’s response, it’s truly been extraordinary. In my long political career, I’ve not seen something like this too often. They have said unmentionable things — the Prime Minister included. Pata nahin kya kya bole (don’t know what all they said)…Khilji, Aurangzeb. It only showed their nervousness. At least we took action (against Mani Shankar Aiyar) immediately. Rahulji was very clear—prompt apology—he has no arrogance. People see through the genuineness of his intent. Dragging the Congress into Kapil Sibal’s role as a lawyer in the courts is a bit too much. There’s a limit to how much you stretch matters. The Congress has not wavered in its stand — we would welcome the Supreme Court decision. The BJP always brings in these issues at the fag end of the election to polarise votes. Amit Shah and Modiji are constantly trying to provoke. But the economic distress is so much, the anger among large sections of the people so palpable, that it may not work…
But the Congress also played mandir politics this time—the soft Hindu card? Rahul Gandhi has not missed visiting one big temple in Gujarat…and there’s a pattern, he’s visited the temple of the dominant castes in the constituencies he campaigned in….
There’s a difference. We don’t make political capital out of religious sentiments. Rahul Gandhi did not campaign in choppers, or very little in choppers. He travelled by bus. If you do chopper campaign, you fly in and land at the exact venue; but if you’re on the road and a big, well-known temple comes on your way, how can he not visit that temple? The people would have taken it otherwise. If he had not visited, questions would have been raised on that as well. It’s not as if his route was made looking at the temples….
Then there was the Somnath controversy.
That was entirely BJP’s doing. I was there, present with Rahulji—and let me tell you it was a fabricated controversy. Please check who are the trustees of Somnath temple…everything will become crystal clear…. When the public mood is in our favour, this kind of thing does not work.
BJP has also said that you’ve been trying to divide Gujarat by alliances with the three youth caste leaders…
The Congress has always been against any divisive agenda. I, personally, am strongly against playing the caste card. But where is the alliance? Alpesh has joined the Congress, Hardik is campaigning on his own with a specific agenda. We have an understanding with him. Jignesh (Mevani) is contesting as an independent. We’ve not put up a candidate against him as a gesture. That’s because he suits us, not because of caste politics. The Congress has always supported the demands and rights of the people.
The opinion polls are making favourable predictions for the Congress, but only in the range between 67/68 and 90/92…
Let the results come out, many will be surprised.
Who’s your CM face — do you think not having a CM candidate is a drawback?
As I told you, we’ve no dearth of leaders in Gujarat. This is a collective battle fought under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.