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'Gujarat result is a wake-up call for BJP'

December 20, 2017 09:00 IST

'Gujarat should have been a breeze. But the Patidar agitation and economic uncertainty queered the pitch.'
'Yes, the BJP won and its rank-and-file will take great comfort in the assembly victory.'
'But the leadership is taking stock for a very tricky set of elections coming up in 2018.'

A Narendra Modi supporter holds up a cut-out of a lotus with the prime minister's picture
IMAGE: A Modi supporter holds up a cut-out of a lotus, the BJP's symbol at a rally. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

"The kind of connect Modi has with Gujarati voters does not extend to electors in upcoming poll-bound states. Here, the BJP has readily identifiable chief ministers who will have to defend their records," Dr Milan Vaishnav, Director and Senior Fellow South Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, DC think-tank, tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih in an e-mail interview.

 

What are the reasons for the BJP's victory in Gujarat?

The Gujarat result confirms what we already know: That it is a very difficult uphill climb to defeat Modi on his home turf.

Gujarat is widely viewed as an impregnable citadel for the BJP. The BJP has held a lock on power there since 1995 -- a tenure that rivals that of the Left Front in West Bengal.

In some sense, the BJP's victory is overdetermined. If I had to point to the core reasons, I would point to three: The BJP's organisational advantage, Modi's personal appeal and charisma, and the Congress party's historic shortcomings on both of these scores.

What are the biggest pointers -- the big story -- from this verdict?

In my mind, there are three principal takeaways from the BJP's triumph in Gujarat. First, the BJP's desire to run on its economic record faces serious impediments.

Without access to the dazzling economic numbers it had hoped for, Modi and Shah have pivoted to less shaky terrain: Majoritarian nationalism, anti-corruption, and strong leadership.

Second, those who see vikas and Hindutva as two independent planks of the BJP's approach must recognise they are really two sides of the same coin. Modi sees no contradiction between the two.

Third and finally, the Congress is showing nascent signs of revival. Admittedly, it is starting from a very low base, but the organisation has received a jolt of energy.

With a more consistent Rahul Gandhi, a smart coalition strategy, and better messaging, it can be a competitive Opposition party again -- especially in states featuring bipolar competition between the BJP and Congress.

Despite agitations by the Patels and Dalits, Mr Modi remains unbeatable. How does this consolidate his position in the party and his leadership in the country?

As Pew and other all-India surveys have shown, no one can touch Modi's popularity on a pan-Indian basis.

Despite his government's failings -- and there was no shortage of the upset in Gujarat over GST and demonetisation -- voters still have faith in his leadership.

There is no question of a challenge from within the BJP at this moment, not least because Modi and Shah have ensured that there is no space for such an alternative power centre within the party.

The BJP has dipped below 100 seats and the Congress has won in Mr Modi's hometown. Is this win as rude a shock for the BJP after the 2014 landslide?

The Gujarat result is a wake-up call for the BJP, no question.

Given the Lok Sabha sweep in 2014, Gujarat should have been a breeze. But the Patidar agitation and economic uncertainty queered the pitch.

Yes, the BJP won and its rank-and-file will take great comfort in the assembly victory. But the leadership is taking stock for a very tricky set of elections coming up in 2018.

In Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan -- in particular -- the BJP will have to stave off anti-incumbency.

What are the lessons for Mr Modi?

One of the broader lessons is how powerful campaigns can be.

As imperfect as they are, the pre-election polls suggested a tighter race than what the exit polls eventually revealed.

Certainly, Modi had an impact on individuals' voting decisions. He campaigned as if his life depended on it.

A second lesson is that the BJP won re-election not because of 'acche din', but in spite of the fact that it has not yet materialised.

The defeat sustained by the BJP in rural parts of the state, namely Saurashtra, suggests that not all is well in the rural and agrarian sectors.

This is a major liability for the BJP as it heads into a big election year.

What are the lessons for Rahul?

The first lesson is that the Congress does well when it keeps its ego in check.

Whereas the Congress of old would have crushed a Hardik, Jignesh or Alpesh, this time the Congress found an accommodation with them.

The party is cognisant of its own failings. As recovering addicts are often reminded: Acceptance is the first step towards recovery.

Second, consistency is key. Rahul has a long way to go before he can be thought of as a charismatic orator, but he has shown considerable improvement over the last few months.

As he takes the reins of the party, he has accumulated a little more goodwill these past few weeks and months.

The BJP has lost seats and vote share in the home state of the prime minister and BJP president, and fallen below the 150 mark predicted by Amit A Shah -- how is this going to impact the party?

Had the BJP lost Gujarat, there would be cause for more introspection.

But given how close the fight is, there is no question that the government will have to calibrate policy to plug its shortcomings.

The first place to look is the trust deficit with rural voters.

As the Modi government readies another Budget, it cannot afford to leave those rural dwellers behind.

The BJP high command has calculated that urban voters, including traders, will stick with it given the paucity of acceptable alternatives. In Gujarat, that bet has paid off.

Rahul Gandhi, with allies Alpesh Thakore, Jignesh Mevani and Hardik Patel, fought a spirited campaign but fell short -- what is the difference you find in the Congress?
Where has it fallen short? Does it imply that there will be firming up of more such alliances?

Rahul Gandhi has been very clear about one thing: The key to a shock 2019 defeat of the BJP is alliance politics.

Gandhi has indicated that he is willing to work with just about anyone who is interested in stopping the BJP's electoral juggernaut.

He and other party leaders see the 2015 Bihar Mahagathbandhan as a model. To the extent it can stitch up marriages of convenience -- going state-by-state -- the Congress plans to do so.

The question worth asking is whether other parties will see the Congress as a rising star or a sinking ship.

What difference do you expect in the Congress under Rahul Gandhi's presidency?

It is too soon to tell. But I expect we will see a greater prominence given to next generation leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia in Madhya Pradesh, Milind Deora in Maharashtra, Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, and Sushmita Dev in Assam.

Second, the Gujarat elections excepted, I think the Congress will paint the BJP as 'anti-minority.'

Minority here refers to not just religious minorities, but caste, linguistic, and other minorities (like migrants).

The party calculated that this would not fly in Gujarat, but I would not take that to mean it won't rely on this line of attack elsewhere.

The BJP held on to its urban voters. What is it about Mr Modi's agenda that appeals to urban voters despite the hardships they may have to bear because of policies like demonetisation, the lack of jobs, GST?

I think one cannot overemphasise the degree to which business and the urban middle class were put off by some of the worst excesses of the United Progressive Alliance government, especially towards the tail end of its second term in office.

Corruption, economic paralysis, a lack of leadership, poor governance -- it really was a perfect storm.

Under Modi's leadership, life is not all sweetness and light by any stretch, but urban voters seem to be giving Modi space to at least carry out some of his proposed changes.

The Congress lost Himachal Pradesh to the BJP, thus widening the party's grip over the country's politics. Do you see the gap widening between the two parties? Or will the Congress be able to bridge the gap?

The simple fact is that there is scope for a protest vote against the national ruling party. The outstanding question is whether the Congress can be an effective receptacle for that vote. To date, it really has not been.

If that begins to change, 2019 will shape up to be a fascinating contest.

Right now, the Congress has to come together to hold onto Karnataka. This is for political but also practical purposes: It will strike a severe psychological and financial blow if the party loses control of a state of this significance with so few regions in its kitty.

Next year, the BJP and the Congress will be in a straight fight in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.
The close contest in Gujarat will have lessons for both parties -- does it imply that these elections will be tough ones for the BJP?

I expect that these fights will be hotly contested, but I would give the BJP the upper hand in all of these elections.

If you follow how the BJP has constructed its electoral machine over the past few years, it has proven it can cross the finish line first.

In Goa and Manipur, despite finishing second in terms of seats, it ended up forming governments in both places literally while the Congress leadership slept.

It simply wanted it more. The Congress, for its part, is often on the backfoot, reduced to playing catch up.

But, at the same time, the kind of connect Modi has with Gujarati voters does not extend in the same way to electors in upcoming poll-bound states.

Here the BJP has readily identifiable chief ministers who will have to defend their records. It won't be as easy for Modi to say 'A vote for the BJP is a vote for me.'

With 19 states under its belt, is the BJP well on its way towards a 'Congress-mukt Bharat'?

I think the Congress has shown, despite its loss, that it is possible to find a way out of the deep hole it has dug for itself.

It will be a long hard slog and Rahul Gandhi has not yet proven he is up for it.

As someone said on a television debate, Amit Shah will spend his New Year's plotting the Karnataka campaign. Will Rahul spend it plotting his next holiday?

The truth is: We simply do not know. But history tells us the answer is yes. It is for Rahul to prove his critics wrong. And keep in mind many of his harshest critics reside within the Congress party though they dare not speak publicly about their concerns.

What do you make of the new crop of leadership in Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakore -- what difference are these entrants going to make in Indian politics?

I think it speaks to the incredible churning in Indian society at the moment.

Debates about inequality, poverty, status, recognition -- these are not confined to think-tank discussions or academic seminars. These are real, bread-and-butter issues that are playing out in state after state.

Whether it is Kanhaiya Kumar or the Jat agitation in Haryana or the Maratha uprising in Maharashtra, there is a sense of anxiety mixed with impatience among segments of the electorate.

I think jobs is the single largest motivating issue, but let's not forget jobs are inextricably linked with status, honour, respect, and community.

Archana Masih / Rediff.com