For all the euphemisms rampant in the social media taunting at his dexterity as a politician, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi on Monday tore into the ruling BJP in Gujarat like a veritable papa who knows exactly what hurts and where, and in the process established a direct connect with the mom and pop stores who constitute the mercantile ethos of the state.
The Gandhi scion kicked off the beleaguered Congress campaign in Gujarat, picking all national issues but homing in on each one of them to find a resonance with the State and its small and medium industry — pop business establishments — that have traditionally been the bread and butter of Gujarat’s vibrant economy.
When someone from the crowd of thousands of party workers present at the venue, shouted Jamnagar’s brassparts industry and Rajkot’s ceramics (being in bad shape), Rahul Gandhi knew he had hit the nail bang on the head.
“Modiji gave Rs 60,000 crore to one company (Tata group for Nano project). If this money was given to small and medium enterprises of Gujarat, think of the jobs they would have generated?”
“You all move around in Gujarat, can you see any Nano cars? How many youngsters got employment there?” Rahul asked, as he deftly moved a double-edged sword into “the biggest issue facing the country today of unemployment” and stated Gujarat was the best placed to solve this problem in a big way.
He used the same instance to speak of the farmers and the tribals in the State. “The debt of farmers in Gujarat is to the tune of Rs 36,000 crore but Tata Nano has been given Rs 60,000 crore loan at 0.01 per cent. This speaks of the priorities of the government.” He also spoke of the violation of land rights of the farmers, Dalits and tribals in Gujarat in the same breath.
As he ambled along on a T-shape ramp set up by the party for him to communicate directly with the rank and file, Rahul said, “It is only the growth and sustenance of the small and medium-scale sector primarily of Gujarat that could help the country compete with China and generate employment, not the big industry.”
He connected this with demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST), calling it a double whammy for the small businesses, apparently keeping in mind an internal survey of the party that reveals GST is a huge issue with the mercantile class in Gujarat. He was quick enough to clarify that, “There is a huge difference between the GST that the UPA was seeking to introduce than what has come. We were never for so many slabs and there was no way of taking the tax as high as 28 per cent, we were for a cap at 18 percent.”
On demonetisation, he again connected it to the small and medium businesses stating that the two per cent fall in the GDP was the result of a negative fallout of demonetization on this sector.
As Rahul delineated the larger campaign theme of the Congress, it is clear the party does not want to give the BJP a walkover in the urban regions of the state as has always been. Being in the commercial capital Ahmedabad, Rahul also went over to call on representatives of civil society organizations, industrialists, businessmen and traders.
“The Narendra Modi government works for a select and handful of corporates. Some 50 of them. The priorities are totally wrong and they are hitting Gujarat the most.” Even as he said this, he was quick on the uptake to balance it out saying, “I am not saying the big corporates should not be there, I am not saying that. I am saying they can’t be ceded the complete space in a country like India.”
The 20,000-plus crowd of party workers from across the length and breadth of Gujarat alternately applauded, cheered and listened with rapt attention.
It is for the time in many years that the Congress party appears to have worn a thinking cap to touch upon real issues in Gujarat, right at the beginning. If it happened in earlier elections, it was often too late in the day.
The entire format of Monday’s event was quite un-Congress-like when the Gandhi scion’s speech did not look like a soliloquy but he was holding a live dialogue with the party’s workers, who one by one asked the real questions in full public view and extracted key promises from him.
Two vital questions from partymen gave away their biggest concern, which according to insiders, often seals the Congress’ fate in the wrong box. The very first question was: What does the party propose to do with influential people cornering election tickets at the cost of merit? Another, the third one, was: What do we do with senior leaders of the party sabotaging prospects of genuine candidates just because they were not recommended by them?
His reply to the first one: “Some months ago, I sent Ashok Gehlot-ji (AICC general secretary in-charge of Gujarat affairs) to Gujarat. I told him you are the general secretary, you have to ensure everything goes right. No candidate will be decided on parachute system in any constituency. Imported candidates will not be allowed, only those who are dedicated hard-working partymen wedded to the Congress ideology will fight.”
Referring to sabotage by senior leaders, Rahul warned, “Whoever, howsoever big or small, tries to defeat the Congress will not be tolerated. There is no space for such persons in the Congress party.”