NEW DELHI: The Congress party is excited. The reason being that Gujarat seems to be responding well to its vice president Rahul Gandhi, whose extensive campaign, has got more than the expected eyeballs without the usual ridicule.

In fact he seems to be setting a national record of sorts with his Twitter handle @OfficeOfRG getting 2,784 retweets in September on an average according to India Today figures. And this places him ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the social media King till date, whose retweets were calculated a 2506 with Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal drawing 1722.

In October, according to the media house, Rahul Gandhi has already touched 3812 retweets.

A great deal of this is to do with Gujarat, where the Congress leader is turning out to be a bit of a favourite. Unlike Uttar Pradesh where he played second fiddle to Samajwadi party Akhilesh Yadav’s winning persona that did not win enough votes of course, here the Congress scion has come into his own as it were.

Witty jibes against the Prime Minister and the BJP, quick repartees, a personal ‘shake hand’ approach with the crowds, and beaming smiles at the journalists along with a willingness to engage in conversation seems to be working to his advantage. The BJP attempts to ridicule him are being dismissed as “old hat” by even journalists in the state, and judging from the crowds response at his public meetings, Rahul Gandhi seems to be moving forward on the popularity scales.

He now has his own team in place in Gujarat with the exit of ShankerSinh Vaghela, referred to as “good riddance”by a senior party leader, turning into an advantage. The party organisation is now working with him and not against him as was the case in some parts of Uttar Pradesh where he was unable to get an effective team in place.

Rahul Gandhi’s social media presence has improved dramatically through the above Twitter handle, although unlike PM Modi, he does not run this account directly under his own name. Some criticism apart, it seems to be working well as @OfficeofRG is manned clearly by an enthusiastic team that is as nosy as it is responsive. And is seen searching for information and stories on different accounts.

This time around the Congress party is also reaching out to the younger leaders under Rahul Gandhi’s direct instructions, and not standing in ceremony. The party is in close touch with Pattidar leader Hardik Patel and still optimistic of winning over Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani into the larger fold. Sources in Ahmedabad said that the BJP is losing the edge because of demonetisation and GST, even as Rahul Gandhi is attracting favourable attention through a sustained campaign on the ground, and in cyberspace.

Rahul Gandhi is focusing on the adverse impact of demonetisation and GST, both very unpopular amongst the business community in Gujarat that has been more vocal most states on this. The BJP bereft of counter arguments---as was evident from Prime Minister Narendra Modi who focused more on the Nehru-Gandhi family than on issues of economy---is working on its old card of religious animosity. In a highly polarised state the argument running just below the covers is that the Congress in power will bring back the Muslims into the power equations. This cuts ice in a polarised city like Ahmedabad, but Congress leaders in Gujarat are optimistic that the spread of this “poison” will stop at the villages and will not have the desired impact.

Interestingly, the potshots at the PM seem to be working, ably aided by a social media campaign joined by all anti-BJP activists and forces. Rahul Gandhi is currently the only national level leader in Gujarat questioning the PM and Amit Shah specifically and thereby attracting enthusiastic and vocal crowds to his meetings. His reminder that the PM’s beti bachao campaign had turned into “Amit Shah ke beteko Bachao” has generated considerable social media mirth. To the point where the BJP government had to field spokespersons and Ministers to remind the electorate about Robert Vadra’s corruption. However, given the fact that the BJP has been saying this for three or more years now, the flood of questions asking why it has not taken action, has placed the party more on the defensive.

The Congress leaders in Gujarat are categorical that the electoral fight has sharpened, pointing to the delay by the Election Commission in announcing the elections at the supposed instance of the central government. And while activists are openly worried about the misuse of EVMs by the ruling dispensation, the Congress is of the view that the paper trail that will now be mandatory will cut into this, and “as for the rest we will keep close watch.”

Rahul Gandhi’s campaign has moved from a ‘hit and run’ strategy as seen in the UP polls, to a ‘ stay and charm’ approach. He is spending three days at least in each region of Gujarat, interspersing his public rallies with smaller meetings, press conferences. The party managers are well aware that he is pitched directly against the still very popular Prime Minister, who is still far weightier on the Gujarat scales than the Congress leader. However, the latter can start taking some solace in the fact that this time around he has crossed the starting line, a first for the Congress in decades where he could not even compete, and with sufficient resilience and sound strategy has the chance of reaching the finish line first.

The Congress is of the view that on an even playing field it could edge towards victory, if everything remains as it is. However, there are two aspects that the party workers are vocally worried about. One, the BJP’s attempt to communalise the elections more so if all else fails and while they are prepared for this, are worried about the shape and form it could take. And two, the Congress party’s own tendency to queer the pitch by fielding unpopular candidates without a base at the instance of central leaders who are still struggling to control the candidates and the campaign. Rahul Gandhi faces considerable resistance from the old guard in the party, a fact he is well aware of but had been finding it difficult to deal with. Until these polls where he has placed a younger team on the ground.

PM Modi is still the sprinter who the bookies will bet on to win this race. But ground conditions to help the underdog do exist, the rest will depend on his and his organisation’s ability to cash in on the opening that the voters in Gujarat seem to be providing to the Congress after a long while.

(File Picture)