Each day, from early morning till late in the evening, Chetan Patel goes door-to-door in the suburb of Katargam in Surat, Gujarat, to talk to voters about the policies and programmes of the Congress. He starts with a friendly introduction to make sure people know he is a local – not some outsider who does not understand Katargam, an assembly seat in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s stronghold of South Gujarat.

The set of political volunteers accompanying him – locals who know the area and the people who count in every locality and are willing to contribute toward the Congress’ campaign – keeps changing as he moves from one part of the constituency to the other. A select few stay with him all through, even after 8 pm when he attends group-meetings of voters organised in different residential blocks of Katargam, which is represented in the Assembly by BJP’s Nanubhai Bhagavanbhai Vanani.

Assembly elections in Gujarat are due at the end of this year.

“The Congress is yet to finalise its candidate for the seat, and so we are seeking support for the party by keeping people informed about the party’s policies and programmes,” Patel said. “Simultaneously, we are also enlisting political volunteers from within the constituency. These are the people who want to work relentlessly to defeat the BJP and who will eventually become part of the booth-level committees of volunteers to carry out micro-campaigning once the Assembly election is formally announced and the candidate for the seat is declared.”

Patel, one of the three main contenders for the Congress ticket in Katargam, began raising a network of grassroots volunteers for the party’s political campaign in May, when he pressed for his candidature and was given the go ahead from party leaders in charge of the constituency.

“In the last four months, I have enlisted nearly 3,000 political volunteers in the constituency,” he said. “While the enlisting of new volunteers is still on, we have also started forming 15-member committee of volunteers for each polling booth in Katargam. By September 5, booth-level committees will start functioning.”

In all, there are 284 booths in the constituency.

Patel is one of three serious contenders for the Congress ticket from Katargam. “The other two are Raghav Gaekwad and Jignesh Mewasa,” he said. “They are also working very hard in the constituency following the same pattern of campaigning, meeting individual voters and raising their own sets of political volunteers.”

None of the three Congress probables, however, works in isolation.

The Surat city president of Congress, Hansmukh Desai, said that the efforts of Katargam’s probable candidates are continuously supervised by Congress leaders in charge of the seat. “At least twice every week these leaders hold meetings with the ticket seekers and give them suggestions as well as support in their efforts,” said Desai. “They are also trying to build synergy among all the ticket seekers and their respective teams of volunteers so that all of them remain together and active irrespective of who finally gets the ticket.”

According to him, of the 12 assembly seats in Surat city area, booth-level committees have been formed in nine, and the exercise in the remaining three seats is expected to be completed by September 5 – the deadline given by the Congress for all ticket seekers across the state.

Chetan Patel (second from right) at a party meeting in Katargam constituency.

Taking on BJP

This is the first time in Gujarat that the Congress is raising an army of volunteers to take on the ruling BJP at the grassroots level. So far, grassroots mobilisation for elections in the state has been the preserve of the saffron party, which banks on workers belonging mainly to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for volunteers.

In past elections, the Sangh Parivar’s micro-level mobilisers, called panna pramukhs, are said to have played a key role in the BJP’s victory in Gujarat, a state the party has ruled uninterrupted since 1998.

The panna pramukh strategy is considered the brainchild of BJP president Amit Shah. It is also said to have been used in parts of Uttar Pradesh during the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

A panna literally means a page – and in this case, a page in the electoral rolls. A pramukh is a person in charge of that page. Each page in the voters’ list has the names of around 60 voters, usually belonging to eight to 12 families. There are roughly 1,000 voters in every booth. Panna pramukhs are asked to focus only on families listed on the page assigned to them.

The BJP has deployed this strategy in the last two Assembly elections in Gujarat. Before this, no other party had thought of dividing the catchment area of a booth into nearly 15-16 units; parties used polling booth level workers as the lowest unit for mobilising voters.

The strategy has given the BJP immense reach among voters in the state – the kind hitherto unknown in the electoral history of modern India. It also gave the saffron party an opportunity to directly involve a large number of RSS cadres for electoral purposes.

The Congress is now attempting to evolve its own booth level committees, each with 15 volunteers, to match the BJP’s panna pramukhs. Though Congress volunteers may not be traditional party cadres and may not have a long history of political involvement as is generally the case with the BJP’s panna pramukhs, they promise to take the grand old party deep among the voters of Gujarat.

“Congress’ booth committees are ready in most parts of the state, and we are in the final stages of checking them,” former Union minister and party’s working president in Gujarat, Tushar Choudhary, told Scroll.in.

To insulate the Congress’ efforts from factionalism, the party has organised its grassroots level preparation by dividing Gujarat into four zones and putting each zone under a leader who does not belong to the poll-bound state. Thus, Rajeev Satav (Congress MP from Maharashtra) is in charge of Saurashtra zone, Varsha Gaikwad (Maharashtra MLA representing Dharavi) of North Gujarat, Jitendra Patwari (MLA in Madhya Pradesh) oversees grassroots level preparations in central Gujarat, and Harshwardhan Vasantrao Sapkal (another Maharashtra MLA) has under him the southern zone of the state.

“The grassroots level preparation is necessary to ensure micro-management of the party’s electoral efforts and to tap into the widespread anti-incumbency in the state,” said Rajeev Satav.

According to Satav, the strategy being used in Gujarat was first perfected by the Congress in the Punjab Assembly election held earlier this year, which brought the party to power. “I was part of the team in Punjab too,” he said. “Just as in Punjab we moved slowly and steadily and became visible only gradually, so are we doing in Gujarat. Our efforts will start becoming visible only at the time of the election.”