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Congress builds caste force to beat Modi

The Congressí electoral strategy in Gujarat relies on caste sentiment to blunt communal rhetoric. The pattern of ticket distribution shows a balancing act aimed at rebuilding a cross caste coalition.

There are two tacks being tried at one time. There is a clear bid to woo back the Patels. The Congress also hopes to retain other backward caste (OBC) communities which have been drifting back of late.

Patels have played a stellar role in anti-Congress politics. All four defeats in Assembly elections have been at the hands of Patelled parties.

Most recently, Chimanbhai in 1990 and then Keshubhai in 1995 and 1998 put together formidable vote bases that routed the Congress.

But the Modi period has seen deepening Patel distrust of the BJP, especially in Saurashtra. With 58 seats in the House, the region was unaffected by riots in early 2002. Even the arrival of Narmada water for irrigation in central Gujarat has become a source of public discontent in the drought-prone area.

The Congress, however, has a second line of defence. Of the 88 general seats for which candidates have been announced, as many as 37 are from OBC Kshatriya groups. This is a constituency long nursed by Shankar Sinh Vaghela, now PCC president. Its influx into the partyís vote base, especially in north and central Gujarat in 1999, is the base on which hopes are anchored.

A study by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that 70 per cent of the peasant OBC castes voted for the Congress in the last general elections. This represents a virtual doubling of the base in only three years.

But north and central Gujarat, where the party did well in 1998, have been epicentres of communal conflict. Kheda, Anand and Mehsana are districts where polarisation on religious lines may well undercut the Congressí appeal to caste loyalties.

No coincidence that Narendra Modiís first Gaurav Yatra began in Phagvel in Kheda.

Similarly, while the Congress has historically led among the sizeable Adivasi voters, the recent riots for the first time saw Scheduled Tribe minority clashes as in Panchmahal.

Still, the loss of seats in north Gujarat could prove costly. All the more so as this was the region where it led in 29 of 52 segments in 1999. Only time will tell if the OBC and Dalit voters are attracted back to the Congress in large enough numbers to blunt pro-Modi sentiments.

A rainbow social coalition saw the party last win an Assembly poll way back in 1985. The KHAM soon came apart, first, as Dalits and then OBCs were polarised against the upper castes. Now, the appeal of Hindutva often cuts across caste lines.

The Opposition party is not stressing an overtly secular profile. The focus is on the importance of peace for continued prosperity. The hope is the economic cost of the widespread violence will go against the enterprise culture the state is famed for.

The other spoke in the wheel is that its leaders rarely act in concert. Vaghelaís RSS past is distinct from Chimanbhai Patelís followers who rejoined the Congress in 1993. Former chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki and Amarsinh Chaudhary were the original architects of the OBC-led social coalition.

Yet, 2002 provides some room for hope, though not much. In 1998, Lok Sabha and Assembly polls were held simultaneously. Both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Keshubhai Patel benefited from a sympathy wave. Since then, the Congress vote share has gone up in later polls due to merger with Vaghela.

Gujarat has a virtual two-party system, so getting ahead in vote share is vital.

This time nobody knows the depth or cross regional extent of communal polarisation. Modiís central strategy has been to reduce all issues to one of identity politics.

The Congress is trying to side step the issue and raise other pressing questions.

But the BJP remains a formidable force, netting 43 per cent of the vote in the last three Assembly elections. The Opposition is counting on divisions within the ruling party.

Many years in power have exposed cracks within, as evident in the chief ministerís shift of constituency from Rajkot to Ahmedabad.

Even a strong showing cutting the size of the BJPís majority would be creditable. Losing may mean having to face an emotive and strident Hindutva head-on in the north Indian Assembly polls next year.

The core strategy is to blunt Hindutva with governance issues and the caste card. But the Congress leadership is now as much on trial as the ruling partyís.

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