AHMEDABAD: A great deal to do with the sharp turn in the Congress party’s sagging fortunes in Gujarat has to do with leader Rahul Gandhi. There is no doubt about it. Ironically, all that did not entice the media and the voters in hardened states like Uttar Pradesh seem to be working for the about-to-be Congress President in Gujarat---the smiles, the hugs, the reaching out, the connect. Adding to this are the witticisms, the aggressive Congress campaign on the social media, and the easy accessibility for which Rahul Gandhi has come to be known.

The Gujarati older women are well on the way to giving up their Modi bhakti, finding Rahul Gandhi very personable and “handsome.” The younger women are bowled over already but laugh and simper when asked if this will turn into votes. Let us see, is the guarded response as they wait for their families to decide. Gujarat, is in the process, of making up its mind with the Patidars in the lead as trendsetters.

There is no doubt that sections of the Patidars are finally looking at giving up their loyalties to the BJP and shifting to the Congress instead. Hardik Patel is a big factor, with the Patidar youth swearing by him even while elders remain a bit critical. At a tiny shop in Mehsana---the heart of Hardik Patel’s earlier agitation but a district that he still has to visit--the generation gap is apparent. The elders admit that they are tempted to shift their vote, but the shop owners son is categorical that he will vote for “Hardik Patel” and hence for the Congress. Can you persuade him not to, we ask the father. He laughs, “these boys will not listen to us, they will go with Hardik.” And you? “Let us see, he is working very hard”

GST is a big issue as the Patidars have been hit. So while some are angry about this, most others are moved by the reservation demand, and even more than that a desire to teach the BJP a lesson. An elderly Patidar man who others around recognise as a spokesperson for their cluster of shops says, “we are voting for Rahul Gandhi. That is it.” Really? But why? “Because we want parivartan, the BJP has to go.” Will he give you reservation? “Let us see, but Modi will have to go.” But is the Congress pro-Patidar. “We don’t care, we need a change.” Well they say the youth is with Hardik Patel? “I am not a youth but I am telling you we will vote for him and the Congress.” No one contradicts him, and the views in this Patidar majority constituency range from a ‘maybe’ to a ‘yes’ not from a ‘no’ as the baseline.

Despite the vocal response amongst the Patels, it does seem that this traditional BJP constituency is still to take a final call. And that as one of them said, “let us wait and see, Amit Shah might come with some lollipop.” The Congress supporters are also worried with the BJP president seen as a magician of manipulation. The BJP has started working on the sub castes among the Patidars, addressing each of the three castes separately. The Congress has still not spoken of this, although Hardik Patel has been stressing on unity and warning the Patidars of efforts to divide them,

Interestingly, the Patidars are in the forefront insisting that there is communal amity. The Muslims, even in heavily dominated Assembly constituencies such as Jamalpur-Khadiya and Vadgam say the same, insisting there is no tension being reported at all. So far the communal card, tried at different levels, has not really worked with the RSS remaining out of the picture altogether as reported by The Citizen. It is all about reservations which for the Patidars means employment for their youth, and to some extent demonetisation and GST. A young Patidar youth joins the conversation, pointing out he is a post graduate, but there are no jobs and he is forced to work in one of the shops to earn a living.

Narendra Modi has so far been unable to effectively puncture this resentment and anger, offering little that is new. His speeches have been more of the old, and what locals see as an evasion of issues. The expectations from the Congress party are low, more so as the locals are well aware of its weak organisation and fractious state leadership and as more than one person pointed out, “Rahul Gandhi is good, but where is the party?”

And this is interesting. Adulation of Narendra Modi has been diluted by Rahul Gandhi who seems to have worked up a fairly frenzied following in Saurashtra region, and is well liked. Not a single person---not even hardened BJP supporters---have a bad or critical word to say about him. They agree that he is working hard, is personable and then top up the observation with a “but for us it is Modi.”

But is it? Somehow the Modi magic has been missing from this election. Gujarat voters have heard it before, seen it, been there. They have all heard him so many times, that they can quote him by heart. Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is new and his smile enticing. So the youth in particular, seeing it as their election because of him and Hardik Patel in particular do not hesitate to line up the roads when either of the two visit, for a quick first hand impression if nothing else.

The BJP is finding it difficult to regain ground as little seems to be working. The sex tape against Hardik Patel did not elicit the expected response, with the Patidar youth laughing it off. Even the elders have to admit that there was little there to stop the vote flow. The communalisation...like with the HAJ posters----has had little response and is not even part of the conversation around tea shops any longer. The BJP whisper campaign that the Congress will bring back the Muslims does not seem to have worked, except in pockets, and there too barely.

As an activist in Ahmedabad said, “the communal card is like a used condom. You cannot use it again now.”

PM Modi knows this, and this is why he has been targeting the Congress and Rahul Gandhi repeatedly. He has the pulse of Gujarat, has the organisation and the feel, and this could well ensure a consolidation that the Congress local leaders are worried about, but not very sure how to stop, Hardik Patel has been constantly warning the crowds about precisely this---the communal card, and more recently a possible return by Modi to histrionics that he is well known for. However, while most are agreed that Modi-Shah will try and pull out a last minute ruse, no one can say for sure what it will be . Speculation is rife, even amongst the BJP with a senior local reporter pointing out that the ruling party needs to consolidate the vote fast.

So far, the Congress because of Rahul Gandhi who has been managing this election entirely, seems to be holding its own. The ground has still not slipped beneath its feet, its alliances despite coming under a little tension are intact, and the old fractious guard of the party that cannot help playing the usual games, has been contained. However, the Congress lacks a responsive organisation with the BJP ahead on this count. It is missing the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad cadres though, who have been directed by the parent body to keep away from these polls.

(Cover Photograph:In a photograph gone viral Rahul Gandhi embraces a lecturer in Gujarat as she breaks down while narrating her problems)