The Congress has not been in power in Gujarat, a state which it once dominated, for over two decades.
Ever since Narendra Modi's rise in the state in the early 2000s, the Grand Old Party has not succeeded in regaining the throne in Gandhinagar. It had to concede defeat to Modi in three elections – 2002, 2007 and 2012 – despite the top brass campaigning in the state.
In 2017, with Modi having departed for New Delhi to serve as the country's prime minister and the state having already witnessed two of his successors inside three years, the Congress is sensing a chance.
In fact, the state's Congress president — Bharatsinh Madavsinh Solanki, 63, a former Union minister and son of the state's four-time chief minister Madhavsinh, known for his KHAM politics – is confident that his party will win a two-thirds majority in this year's election.
International Business Times, India, spoke to Solanki to understand how the Congress was gearing up for the crucial election. Here are excerpts from the interview:
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IBT India: The Congress has decided to pick its candidates from the grassroots and not from the top. Is this a change in strategy for the party?
Solanki: Yes, the Congress is trying to involve more people at the grassroots level for this election. We are backing the youth, aged below 45, and people who are popular at the grassroots level. We are not going to field candidates who lost the last election by over 20,000 votes. We are also backing women candidates in each parliamentary constituency.
Those workers who have submitted names of 15 workers per booth will be given priority. We are doing this under the leadership of our vice-president Rahul Gandhi and the state leadership is also putting in an effort to make this vision a reality.
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We have seen good results with this strategy in local elections and are confident that it will pay off in the Assembly polls as well.
IBT India: Reports are saying that the Congress is planning to make Hindutva a poll plank for this election to take on the BJP. Is this true?
Solanki: We are with the majority. The Congress has always been a secular party and there is no question of courting Hindutva. We are with the majority and the majority of the people in Gujarat are Hindus. Ours is an inclusive party and we take along each caste and community with us.
IBT India: The Congress already has a poll slogan in place ('Congress Aave Chhe' or 'Congress is coming'). Will it be so easy for the party to come to power this time?
Solanki: Yes, we are confident. Gujarat will see resurgence under the Congress after it returns to power this year. The current government in Gujarat is unpopular and is ineffective in dealing with problems including unemployment, law and order, farmers' issues.
They changed Anandiben Patel after sensing that things were not going well and chose a man (current CM Vijay Rupani) who is just a rubberstamp of the BJP president, Amit Shah. The issues of the Patidar movement and attacks on Dalits will also be challenges for the BJP government. We are confident of getting a two-thirds majority.
IBT India: Will the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and players like Hardik Patel be a challenge for the Congress by eating into its votes?
Solanki: Certainly not. The AAP is irrelevant in Gujarat. Hardik is a young leader and he has to decide on his stance. If he is with the Congress, well and good, but we are not thinking of anything but defeating the BJP.
IBT India: We have seen that the Congress has a decent vote-share in Gujarat, although it cannot convert those votes into seats. Any reason for this?
Solanki: We have been failing to do well in the urban areas, although we are quite strong in rural parts. But we are working hard on this aspect. We are reaching out to people on issues like unemployment, those related to women, etc, to connect with urban voters better.
IBT India: Has the Congress decided on a chief ministerial face for the Gujarat elections?
Solanki: The Congress traditionally follows the policy of not picking a CM candidate before the polls. We will decide on that after studying the situation on the ground.
IBT India: What are the big issues at the Gujarat Assembly Elections 2017?
Solanki: There are a lot of issues. Besides the Patidar movement, which is a big one, the state's farmers are suffering and not getting the minimum support price. Rising prices, unemployment, poor human development index, law and order, expensive education – the list is long. Water and electricity issues will also be big concerns. I had done a lot for the state as Union minister of state for drinking water.
The state government has done nothing for Gujarat's development. It was the former UPA government, led by the Congress that was instrumental in the state's development, as it had approved massive funds. The state's BJP government should take no credit for that.
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