Sonia Gandhi
Congress president Sonia Gandhi had tried hard to defeat Narendra Modi when he was the chief minister of Gujarat by basing the narrative on the secular-communal debate. But it did not pay off. In 2017, will the Congress play the BJP's own majoritarian card to tackle it?Congress official website

After losing 1-4 to the BJP in the five-state elections in February and March (in two of those states, they could not eventually win despite getting the most number of seats), the Congress is getting ready for the next set of electoral battles of the year 2017 in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

However, though the story about the Congress's preparation for an election doesn't make many interested nowadays, the strategy which the party is adopting for the elections in these two states, especially in Gujarat – the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- is unconventional.

Also read: After the disaster in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections 2017, is there any way ahead for Congress and Gandhis?

Picking candidates from grassroots: Unusual by Congress's standard

The first is the decision to pick candidates from the grassroots level. It has been reported that the party's vice president – Rahul Gandhi – has decided that instead of the top brass picking the candidates, the party will focus on the acceptability and popularity of the grassroots workers and the candidates will be finalised only after assessing their grip and popularity at the booth stages.

Almost 1,500 people have already applied for the party's candidature for the 182-seat Assembly in Gujarat which will go to the polls later this year.

Besides, the Gujarat Congress has also decided not to give tickets to people who have lost elections twice or those who have lost by over 20,000 votes in the 2012 election. The Congress has also gone more to the micro level by deciding to set up panels of names for each constituency in the state, state's party president Bharatsinh Solanki said. Even the party has decided to field at least one woman in each of Gujarat's 33 districts.

Congress to bank on Hindutva for Gujarat polls? That's a big, big news

If the above move is quite an innovation for a party which is tightly centralised in its functioning, the other is certainly a sensation. And that is about the Congress think-tank's advice to its leaders to focus on Hindutva as the poll plank in Gujarat. For a party which still survives on the idea of Nehruvian secularism, shifting to explicit Hindutva is a step which is not only unconventional but involves a big risk. But the party's political state of affairs is so pathetic at the moment that it is being forced to toe the BJP's line for the upcoming Gujarat election.

There is very little doubt now that following its show in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP will go all out to play its Hindutva card. On April 2, a Virat Hindu Mahasammelan will be held in Ahmedabad under the aegis of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad where focus will be on building Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

On the occasion, discussions will also be held on stricter cow-protection laws and issues like Love Jihad. In all, the UP results have definitely boosted the saffron family's morale by a great degree and every effort will be made now to mobilise the cadres on these sentiments. Moreover, going by the perception of a 'developed state' that Gujarat has, development is expected to take a backseat in the Assembly elections although Prime Minister Narendra Modi's big jump to New Delhi from Gandhinagar was based on that mantra.

Congress cannot do much other than wooing majoritarian sentiments

Against these challenges, the Congress cannot do much otherwise. The party has remained out of power in the state for over two decades now and although it has a decent vote-share vis-a-vis the BJP which it hasn't succeeded in transforming into seats because of lack of a strong face which could have taken on Modi who led the BJP to victory in 2002, 2007 and 2012. The BJP had first come to power in Gujarat in 1995 and it was no looking back for the saffron party in the state ever since.

The Congress's top brass, including president Sonia Gandhi, had tried to beat Modi in Gujarat more than once by various means but of no avail. In the 2002 Assembly election, she played the soft Hindutva card, something the Congress has conveniently done in the past only to hurt itself, to rake up the communal pogroms that took place earlier year to appeal to liberal Hindus but failed. In 2007, she directly charged Modi as Maut Ka Saudagar (merchant of death) but again of no avail.

Congress's state leadership might prove to be more in sync with reality than Gandhis

In 2017, the Congress has been left much to the mercy of its state leadership as the Gandhis have been hit by failing health and successive losses. The days of its KHAM (Kashtriya+Harijan+Adivasi+Muslim) are also over as the Modi age has made the BJP a more inclusive party despite the Hindutva hardline.

It now rests on the Congress's ability to take a leaf out of the BJP's book. In a state like Gujarat, fighting the polls on a secular plank is next only to suicide because the state's people have little regard for the term 'secular'. The Congress's chances have been ruined further by instances of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the Godhra incident a decade later which strengthened the BJP's hands more.

But there will be issues with the Hindutva strategy as well

However, playing the Hindutva card by the Congress to pay the BJP in its own coin might not be too smart an idea in 2017 when the Patels have grown a voice against the BJP. Then there is the Aam Aadmi Party which can benefit from the entire political equation and send the Congress packing to the third position in the state by eating into its votes.

Either way, it's tough time for the Congress ahead of the Gujarat elections despite its innovative thinking to check the constant slide in the fight against Modi and Amit Shah.