The grand temple of Somnath forms the perfect setting to contrast the Congress party’s 2022 strategy for the Gujarat Assembly polls with its markedly different campaign in the previous Assembly election.
During the 2017 campaign, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the Somnath temple triggered a controversy after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleged that he had refused to identify himself as a Hindu. This, in turn, had prompted Randeep Surjewala, who was then heading the party’s communication department, to say that Mr. Gandhi was a janaeu dhari [sacred thread-wearing] Brahmin.
“It’s precisely to avoid such unnecessary controversies, the Congress has resorted to a silent campaign,” says Ravi Khakkhat, a local journalist in the port town of Veraval, barely five kms from the Somnath temple.
On Tuesday, the last day of campaigning for the 89 seats that go to polls in the first phase on December 1, Somnath-Veraval witnessed a show of strength by the sitting Congress legislator, Bimal Chudasama, who took out a kilometre-long roadshow.
What was the one issue over which he is seeking re-election? “Monghvari!” The Gujarati word for price rise or inflation, he said, as his motorcade went past Tower Chowk area of the town.
“The biggest issues for the people today are mehangai or inflation, corruption and unemployment. And we are concentrating only on these issues even though the Prime Minister [Narendra Modi] and the Home Minister [Amit Shah] are trying their best to polarise on Hindu-Muslim lines. But these issues are not getting traction and won’t work,” Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) chief Jagdish Thakor told The Hindu.
“We are going door to door and pointing out the misgovernance of the BJP. Be it during the COVID pandemic or natural calamities like the cyclone that affected farmers, governance was missing. And now, the cost of living is unbearable. People relate to these issues,” says Mr. Thakor.
Former Congress party chief Mr. Gandhi’s preoccupation with the Bharat Jodo Yatra prompted the party to rework its strategy to focus on door-to-door campaigns, booth-level meetings, and khatla parishad or charpoy meetings in rural areas.
But many argue that the Congress’ campaign seems muted in comparison to the ruling BJP, whose lead campaigner is the Prime Minister, or new entrant the Aam Admi Party (AAP), which has fielded Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as its star campaigner.
The party’s Gujarat campaign also suffered because of the Congress presidential elections and the main poll observer for the State, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, getting entangled in a leadership tussle with his former Deputy, Sachin Pilot.
“We are not invisible at all. Rather, we are visible among the people,” counters Ramesh Chennithala, who headed the party’s screening committee to choose candidates.
The Congress has not only appointed senior leaders as Zonal Observers but has also appointed one for each of the 26 Lok Sabha seats to supervise its ground-level campaign
Avoiding personal attacks
It is avoiding any public debate around any polarising narrative or any response to barbs by the BJP. Political observers point out that the BJP is quick to capitalise on any personal attack or a loose comment against their top leadership.
For example, Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge’s comment comparing Mr. Modi with Ravan was dubbed as “an insult to Gujarat’s son” by the BJP.
“Local Congress leaders want to avoid personal attacks against top BJP leaders and focus on issues that common people relate to,” says Mr. Khakkhat.