Party to focus on corruption and “loot” of exchequer as revealed by CAG reports
Get the spotlight off Chief Minister Narendra Modi: that's the Congress goal in Gujarat, where Assembly elections are due at year-end. As the propaganda machinery of Mr. Modi, who has led the Bharatiya Janata Party to two successive victories in the State, continues to hum smoothly, dimming all other voices, the Congress is working to a carefully calibrated “quiet” strategy.
Central to this strategy are the focus on corruption and “loot” of the exchequer, as revealed in State Comptroller and Auditor-General reports, and an attempt to expose “hollow claims” on the developmental front made by Mr. Modi's government. Simultaneously, the party has toned down criticism of his conduct during the 2002 carnage in the State. Indeed, a day after the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team found no evidence against any of the 62 accused named in Zakia Jafri's complaint for the murder of her husband, Ehsan Jafri, in the Gulberg Society massacre, the Congress response was low key: party spokesperson Rashid Alvi said it was only the SIT report, not a court pronouncement. Choosing his words with care, he added the very fact that over 80 people died in the massacre meant that the government and the Chief Minister were unable to control the situation, and failed to protect the lives and property of these people.
Pressed to respond to the question whether the Gujarat carnage would be an election issue, Mr. Alvi said: “We don't want to make it an issue. This is a very serious matter and whatever happened in 2002 is shameful and unfortunate. We don't want to make such issues the basis of our politics.” Clearly, in the elections later this year, voters are unlikely to hear the phrase Maut ka saudagar (merchants of death) used by Congress president Sonia Gandhi during the last Assembly polls in 2007.
Instead from September 2011, the Congress has launched a series of pre-election programmes, public meetings and rallies, targeting the State government's claims of development. The party's latest effort is the Jansampark Parivartan Yatra, launched on Tuesday: in the course of a fortnight, 180 public meetings will be held across four municipal corporations, 159 municipalities and 25 districts. Around five lakh pamphlets, focussing on the BJP government's failure to address the problems of city dwellers — the middle class as well as those living in slums — will be distributed during the yatra.
The Congress's pre-election campaigns are systematically focussing on different sections of the population: if the current campaign is concentrating on urban Gujarat, earlier it had a kisan yatra, which looked at the concerns of farmers, and public gatherings aimed at specific communities such as the OBCs or Dalits. There was another evocatively titled Hisab do, Jawab do (Give us your accounts, give us your answers).
And in January this year, the party conducted the Sardar Sandesh Yatra, with yatras from the six corners of the State converging on Anand, five km from Karamsad, where Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel spent his childhood. The object was to “reclaim” the legacy of a Congress — and Gujarati — icon appropriated by Mr. Modi, who has styled himself as “Chota Sardar,” as well as try and make inroads into the powerful Patel community. The Congress even used a photo of a BJP activist standing on a statue of Sardar Patel to paste a party poster carrying an image of Mr. Modi as evidence of the disrespect shown by that party to a man revered across the State.
But will the Congress succeed in pushing Mr. Modi to the margins of people's minds? In the latest battle between the two parties in cyberland, in which the Congress is trying to generate negative votes for Mr. Modi in a Time Magazine-sponsored poll about the 100 most influential people, he remains bang in the centre of the frame. For the Congress, out of power in Gujarat since 1995, pushing Mr. Modi out of public consciousness will be an uphill task.