No-name campaign

The Congress had no large story to counter Modi's, and crucially, no storyteller

The Congress's sixth consecutive defeat in Gujarat is made up of its several weaknesses and abdications. Its campaign was not supported by an energetic organisation on the ground, for one. Then, there was the unmistakable evidence of the ideological and political confusion it has been unsuccessfully grappling with, especially since 2002. Though the Congress finally decided to be reticent on 2002 while focusing on local contexts and issues, it appeared to have arrived at the battleground too late. By that time, Narendra Modi had shifted the locale of the fight. Always disdainful of the Congress in Gujarat, he looked through the state-level leaders in this campaign, while sparring with its central leadership. Even as he broadly packaged the state's economic successes, he wasn't to be bogged down by local landscapes and concerns. Throughout, he was able to set the terms of the debate for an important reason: to combat him, the Congress could rustle up only a patchy and last-minute electoral strategy and tactic. It had no large story to match or counter his, and crucially, no storyteller.

The day after, the Congress would do well to wonder if there is a lesson in the difference in its performance in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, one that resonates beyond these two states. While its campaign in Himachal benefited from the all but formal anointment of the veteran Virbhadra Singh as its mascot, no leader was allowed to take ownership of the party's exertions in Gujarat. The resultant facelessness of the Gujarat campaign was an extension of the dominant party culture that remains in denial about a defining imperative of Indian politics after the one-party dominance system splintered in the '90s: the regionalisation of politics and of political leadership. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, the Congress was able to wrest back the political initiative it had lost to the regional force only when it allowed a regional leader, YSR, to remake the state party in his own mould. In West Bengal, the Congress lost its claim to be the main opposition to the Left to Mamata Banerjee because her fightback was more rooted. In Bihar, the party languishes at the margins because another regional leader, Nitish Kumar, has edged it out of the main contest.

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