NEW DELHI: Gujarat has become a battle not just between the BJP and the Congress but has dimensions that have turned Gujarati’s into political hounds of the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh kind, speaking incessantly of politics.

Everyone has an opinion here but the consensus is that the BJP will lose seats. Not many see it losing the government, but all including die hard BJP supporters who have never voted for any party, admit that this time the party tally will be reduced. The figures vary but the conventional wisdom places these at at least 15-25 less for the BJP that will bring it into the 95-105 seats vicinity.

And of course, political pundits sit back with a “we know all” expression and launch into the impact of these Assembly results on 2019. Again the consensus here is that win or lose, if the BJP tally drops by even 10-15 seats it will bolster Opposition forces in the coming state elections in the run up to the Lok Sabha polls.

But in the midst of this debate that will be settled conclusively on December 9 and 14, there are two other battles that are being fought, with ferocious intensity that will have an impact on the future of both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress to-be President Rahul Gandhi. Both are fighting for supremacy and control over and above the RSS, and the Congress old guard respectively.

The RSS has kept a distance from the Gujarat polls so far, with the result that its front organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have not been mobilised to help the BJP in these elections. This is possibly one reason for the lower crowds at the Prime Minister’s rallies in the state. And also the reason why communal rumours are getting nipped in the bud with the BJP cyber trolls being effectively countered by the Congress on the social media.

In Gujarat the RSS---that is far more active in states like Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh now under two Chief Ministers who are not close to PM Modi and BJP President Amit Shah---has had to play second fiddle to PM Modi who is clear that he will not take instructions for his home state. Shah, who did seek the help of the RSS in the UP polls, is keeping away this time determined to prove that no other forces are required by them to win the elections.

In this power play, the RSS has developed stakes in a BJP defeat in Gujarat although its cadres are not working for either but just maintaining a distance. In the districts local RSS men came up to sing the praises of PM Modi, but as one of the voters, and not as campaigners. Clearly the RSS cadres are highly supportive of the Prime Minister, if not of the BJP, but as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad local leader in Ahmedabad Sunil Saini told The Citizen, “we are not campaigning, and will not until we receive instructions from the top (RSS) to do so.” Sources said that after the first phase of polling on December 9, Shah and Modi will have to take a decision about the RSS cadres. “For if this round does not favour the BJP they will need the VHP and others,” is the assessment.

But this dependency then will impact on the other elections, and will strengthen the RSS writ on the Modi government. There have been reports of tensions between the two after he became the Prime Minister with a mandate that extended far beyond the RSS reach. Ever since there has been a tug of war between the two, with both biting into the rope and letting it go only once in a while for tactical reasons. The RSS has clearly decided to play the final game as it were in Gujarat, and the hope clearly is that a reduction in the number of seats for the BJP will take some of the gloss off Modi, and transfer the sheen to Nagpur.

Rahul Gandhi is having a rougher time, as he has still to get the mandate that elevated Modi to the top rung of the hierarchical ladder. The people's overwhelming response placed PM Modi on a virtual pedestal, with the RSS having to follow him for a long while instead of the other way around. In Rahul Gandhi’s case, the old guard in the Congress has been his worst enemy really for a long while, with many senior leaders planting stories against him in the past, and giving teeth to the BJP anti-RG propaganda of being naive and stupid.

Rahul Gandhi has been aware of this but unable to cut into the animosity in any meaningful way until his visit to the United States. Here he had his father’s aide Sam Pitroda as his ‘manager’, to put it a little crudely, with the result that he did not have to contend with the old guard media managers in Delhi and had his cyber ‘team’, Pitroda and others handle the publicity directly. Gujarat is now the first testing ground for the Congress leader, who is also now actually on his way to taking over as the party president, win or lose. This is different from the UP polls, where presidentship had been linked with victory, and hence the slump in seats ensured by a non-active Congress organisation successfully stopped Rahul Gandhi’s elevation.

It is no secret that while the old guard is being kept on board for inputs, Rahul Gandhi has brought in his own team into Gujarat, placing zonal managers who have been providing invaluable information to determine strategy. It is no secret in Gujarat that the younger leaders Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor are being dealt with directly by Rahul Gandhi who has intervened personally in their favour when the ‘old guard’ of the party made mistakes, that were seen as deliberate.

For instance a Patidar leader opposed by Hardik Patel was given a Congress ticket that led to protests by his supporters. It was only after Rahul Gandhi intervened that the ticket was cancelled, and Hardik Patel’s nominees accommodated. Jignesh Mevani was given a ticket at the instance of Rahul Gandhi from Vadgam, but despite this the local Congress is in a state of non-cooperation. Similar reports have been received from other constituencies with Congress workers revolting, and even throwing stones, as in Maninagar constituency where the candidate---albeit rather weak---is a Rahul Gandhi choice.

The old guard of the Congress has worked fairly closely at times with the local BJP. Shankersinh Vaghela, for long a Congress leader “fortunately” according to a state Congress leader, left the party this election to form his own outfit that is barely being heard of now. However, it is no secret that Vaghela had been fairly close to the BJP and seen as one of the obstacles in the way of a Congress revival in the state. He had sufficient ‘benefactors’ in Delhi to keep him in position as the chief leader with the party barely moving in the state since 2002.

Rahul Gandhi’s entry into Gujarat---unlike UP---has been with his own ‘team’, his own group of advisors, and a strategy that does not necessarily take the ‘old guard’ into confidence. In fact, quite the opposite as the sources said. Interestingly, it is common knowledge amongst Ahmedabad’s informed sections that he is facing problems from the ‘old guard’ ---there are names but not being mentioned here as these remain unconfirmed---that would prefer the status quo, with Sonia Gandhi remaining Congress President. Also they are reluctant to hand over the reins of control to Rahul Gandhi as he will change all the equations within the party.

In fact it is the Congress organisation that is coming in the way of what could be victory for the party in Gujarat. That most people in the state still do not see a Congress government in power---except for the pollsters---is largely because of the ineffective and fractious organisation on the ground that has been checkmated in some constituencies by Rahul Gandhi’s team but clearly not across the state. For example in Mehsana, a Patidar stronghold, the Congress has fielded a candidate from the caste but has left him to his own resources insofar as organisational support is concerned. Local Patidars admitted this, but many did say that they would be voting for him regardless.

A better performance in Gujarat will not just strengthen the Congress, but Rahul Gandhi and the new team he plans to bring in with him as the party president.