The most interesting aspect of the Congress strategy for the Gujarat election mounted by Rahul Gandhi, who is set to be formally anointed as the party president this week, was allying with the leaders of mass movements. Whatever the outcome of this election, it’s a strategy that could serve the Congress well in other states.

Gandhi reached out to Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani, young men spearheading mass movements for securing the rights and demands of their communities who had begun to fill the opposition space in Gujarat. It was a smart move.

Patel, the face of the Patidar agitation for reservation, has been the star campaigner of Gujarat 2017. He has drawn huge crowds at his rallies, often larger than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Thakor, initially backed by some in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to counter the Patidar agitation by fighting for the rights of the Other Backward Classes, has formally joined the Congress to contest the election. Mevani, who shot into prominence by leading the Una agitation, is expected to deliver the Dalit vote to the party. The Dalits traditionally voted for the Congress but many of them were saffronised in the last two elections. They are the angriest of Gujarat’s restive communities, though not as vocal as the Patidars or the OBCs, and that could be to the Congress’s advantage.

Generally, parties ally with political groupings, big and small, to get a leg-up, and not with grassroots movements and NGOs. But this time the Congress, whose big brother approach has annoyed smaller parties it has allied with in the past, chose to let others do its work, staying a step behind.

The Congress has to think innovatively to co-opt the new political energies emerging in states to have a shot at revival as a dominant national force, and the party could do worse than to employ the template it has fashioned for Gujarat. Here, it helped that Patel, Thakor and Mevani had come to occupy a sizeable opposition space over the last two years, frontally taking on the BJP and ripping into the Gujarat Model of development.

Still, the Congress is vulnerable in Gujarat, not least because its organisation has greatly weakened over the last two decades. It’s hardly a match for the well-oiled election machinery on the other side – referred to by some as the “Amit Shah School of Election Management” – committed to winning every election from the “panchayat to Parliament”.

This may explain why Patel didn’t formally join the Congress; he is aware that while the Patidars are disaffected with the BJP, they aren’t particularly enamoured of the Congress. The party may not mind so long as the young leader delivers in 2017 what the veteran Keshubhai Patel failed to in 2012. The former chief minister had broken away from the BJP and floated Gujarat Parivartan Party, but it came a cropper. Instead of taking a chunk of the BJP vote, the party actually cut into the anti-BJP vote, thus damaging the Congress’ prospects.

A party divided

In Gujarat and beyond, Rahul Gandhi’s woes stem from the fact that the Congress has ceased to be a cohesive, disciplined party. It is more a conglomerate of individuals, each pursuing their own agenda. Indeed, even as Gandhi was studiously keeping from doing anything that could create Hindu-Muslim polarisation – mentioning the 2002 riots, for example – some of the party’s leaders made remarks — Mani Shankar Aiyar calling Modi neech, or those about Janeu or Ayodhya — that played into Modi’s hands.

For too long, the Congress has had to contend with leaders from whose utterances the party has to regularly distance itself. Gandhi took action against Aiyar this time but the damage was done, and that too in a high-stakes election.

That Modi would leave no stone unturned to win Gujarat was known long before he began campaigning. People in Gujarat, including Congress leaders, would often ask what rabbit he would pull out of his hat in the last stretch of the campaign if it didn’t go as well as he planned. Modi has spoken less of development this campaign and more of the dynasty, Hindu versus Muslim. He has also focused on himself personally, saying the Congress wanted to eliminate him, that he was the son of Gujarat and a representative of its people in Delhi, that he was a chaiwalla up against the elite. Modi remains popular in Gujarat even though there’s widespread disaffection against the BJP.

The Congress sought to exploit the disaffection but it peaked too early and appeared to have no plan for the penultimate round of campaigning. The BJP went in at full blast and Modi captured the discourse with his emotional pitch. Whether this would be enough to trump the desire for change and the discourse of development sold by the Gandhi-Patel-Thakor-Mevani combine remains to be seen.