No contest: why Congress leaders fail before Narendra Modi

Aakar Patel

India, Nov. 19 -- Why has the Congress done so poorly in Gujarat? The facts are before us and do not make for good reading if you are a Congress voter. The party has not won a majority in Gujarat for over two decades. The last time it did was in 1985. In the election that followed, in 1990, it came third for the first time behind Janata Dal and the BJP.

It has never come close to winning Gujarat back and the difference between the voteshare of the Congress and that of the BJP has consistently been about 10%. Such a difference would mean a landslide every time, and that is exactly what has happened.

One problem that the Congress has is that the condition it is in is not entirely its fault. In fact, if Congress got a regular 35-38% voteshare across the country it would be delighted.

But despite having such a share in Gujarat, it continually loses. The reason of course is that it is a two-party state. Where in another state, a third of the total vote would be a very good share, in Gujarat it will always land the Congess on the losing side. The fact is that the BJP has a much better coalition of communities on its side than the Congress does.

A second reason is that the most powerful leader of the Gujarat Congress works out of Delhi. That man is Ahmed Patel. His official position is being Sonia Gandhi's political secretary. That means he is the gatekeeper and access to her is through him. However Patel, who is from Bharuch, has never really left regional politics to his successors despite such a long stint in Delhi.

He last contested elections in 1984, and has no first-hand idea about the changed electoral reality of Gujarat after Ayodhya. For the last 20 years, he has been in the Rajya Sabha. Though Sonia lets him interfere in Gujarat, Patel has no stake and no accountability. Whether the party wins or loses in the state, he keeps his position as her secretary.

If he thinks, and Congress agrees, that his intervention in Gujarat is necessary, Sonia Gandhi should send him back to take on Narendra Modi. Patel can lead the state Congress full-time and nurse it back to health. On the other hand, if Congress thinks it is better served by Patel's remaining in Delhi as Sonia's assistant then it should use him in that position and not let him interfere in Gujarat.

Because it has allowed him to do so for so many years, the party has not settled in the state. Leaders like Shankarsinh Vaghela, Bharatsinh Solanki, Shaktisinh Gohil and Arjun Modhwadia keep coming and going. They lose elections because they do not have the freedom, even if they had the talent, to take on a political master like Narendra Modi.

It is absolutely true that there is nobody in the Gujarat Congress who is as charismatic or as skilled as Modi. But it is also true that Sonia Gandhi has not allowed the state unit to function without interference, and state leaders to emerge through pure merit. And that is the sorry truth about the Congress in Gujarat.

(Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist. The views expressed are personal.)

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.