Gujarat election 2017: Looks like Congress party has given up on raking up the 2002 Gujarat riots issue as it plans to beat Narendra Modi-powered BJP in the upcoming assembly elections in the state. For three subsequent assembly elections in the state – 2002, 2007 and 2012 – the Gujarat riots issue remained a talking point of Congress campaign either in the state or outside. The most famous incident was of Congress president Sonia Gandhi using ‘Maut Ka Saudagar (Merchant of Death)’ jibe against then Gujarat CM, and now PM, Narendra Modi during the 2007 assembly election in the state.
The Congress strategy of personal attacks on Modi, over 2002 riots that killed 1000s of people, failed miserably in 2007. And in 2012, party’s top leadership, including Sonia, refrained from mentioning the riots in their speeches in the state, even as they continued to rake it up outside Gujarat until 2014. Even weeks ahead of 2014 General Elections, Congress had resurrected the ‘Maut Ka Saudagar’ barb against Modi. “If you don’t call him maut ka saudagar (merchant of death), how else can you describe him,” party spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil was quoted as saying by The Indian Express in March 2014.
Gilles Verniers, professor of political science and co-director of Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, recently wrote in IE that before 2007 elections, Congress state leadership was against its Central leaders using phrases like “maut ka saudagar” against Modi. “Ironically, prior to the 2007 regional elections, and in light of the changed context, many in the Congress state unit demanded restraint from their central leaders, especially when it came to making statements that would appear to go against Hindu nationalism,” Verniers wrote.
However, the Central leaders did not pay attention to the local leaders’ demands and used terms like “Hindu terrorist” and “merchant of death” against Modi. “These were perceived as personally targeting the CM and were portrayed by the BJP as a reflection of the Congress’ “anti-Hindu” stance. During the 2012 elections, the Congress state unit was again sidelined by the party’s central leadership, which turned the election into a personal contest between Modi and the Gandhis,” Verniers wrote.
What is surprising from the Congress stable in 2017 is that the party appears to have completely dumped the Gujarat riots issue. Even its pet issues like alleged rising intolerance in the country have surprisingly gone missing from the campaign speeches of its top leader Rahul Gandhi, who is now apparently toeing a soft Hindutva line in his party’s desperate bid to beat BJP in the state.
Social-political equations are changing in Gujarat. There have been reports that Muslim voters are disappointed with the Congress apathy. In an in-depth report in June this year, the Scroll.in said, “For Muslims reeling from the 2002 carnage, the Congress party and religious leaders became their support system. But 15 years later, the Muslims are in no better shape socio-economically and many of them are rethinking their support.”
The Grand Old Party has also tried to stitch alliances with young caste leaders like Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore, and Jignesh Mewani. There is a clear change in Congress strategy. So far, Rahul has kept ‘attack Modi on development’ the main plank of Congress campaign – hence puns like ‘Vikas (development) has gone crazy’ in Gujarat have come up. However, in 2012, Congress had failingly tried to beat Modi on the issue of development in Gujarat. Will this strategy succeed now?