'The decline in BJP seats tells us that despite the rote incantation of the development mantra, Gujarat is not immune to the economic pain the country is feeling and is telling the ruling party so,' says Shreekant Sambrani.
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit A Shah at the swearing of the Vijay Rupani government in Gujarat, December 26, 2017. Photograph: Santosh Hirlekar/PTI Photo
It would be no exaggeration to say that the most thrilling moments of the exhausting battle for the Gujarat assembly occurred in the half hour between 9.30 am and 10 am on December 18.
The leads changed from one moment to another, from one channel to another.
News anchors known even otherwise for their hyperkinetic manner were nearly apoplectic with excitement as they announced, 'Congress ahead!' But thereafter, it was a continuation of the Bharatiya Janata Party's long-foretold ascendancy.
Spin-meisters of both the BJP and the Congress are already at work: 'We lost about 10 to 15 seats despite the double anti-incumbency, but we won, didn't we?' goes one lot, while the other says, 'Our best showing since 1985, and we managed to slow the BJP juggernaut, so ours is the moral victory.'
Pollsters and pundits of all stripes, many of whom were wide of the mark as before, will consume quantities of newsprint and face time on television to justify their labours.
Gujarat does not seem to have heeded the frequently shrill and divisive appeals of caste leaders.
The Patidar population is evenly distributed in the state. The supposed bastion of the Patidar Arakshan Andolan Samiti (Paas), Surat, had returned a number of Congress candidates to the municipal corporation in 2015.
The Paas leadership -- read Hardik Patel -- was confident of a good response from Surat. That did not quite materialise.
The Patidar community in central Gujarat has been even more lukewarm to the reservationists' cause. It seems that the emotive appeal of the caste factor is not necessarily strong enough in all regions to prevail over other concerns including loyalty to the ruling party.
But it is altogether a graver concern that the Muslims, who constitute 9 per cent of the population, are completely voiceless.
They mattered little to the BJP and now even to the Congress. That was reflected in not just Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's references to Pakistan's conspiratorial intentions after Mani Shankar Aiyar's ill-timed and execrable remarks.
The popular coinage of HAJ, referring to Hardik (Patel), Alpesh (Thakore) and Jignesh (Mevani), who were the Congress frontline warriors, was none too subtle a reminder of the communal fears.
The decline in BJP seats this year as compared to its earlier tally tells us that despite the rote incantation of the development mantra, Gujarat is not immune to the economic pain the country is feeling and is telling the ruling party so.
The continued dominance of the BJP in the cities suggests that these concerns are not quite confined to the note ban or the disruption due to the goods and services tax which would have affected the urban voters relatively more.
What seems to worry the population is the general sense of economic drift and discomfort caused by it: Uncertain growth prospects affecting job creation, and creeping commodity price rise defying seasonality.
This is all the more evident among the peasantry and the villages where the electorate vented its displeasure by increasing the Congress votes.
Agrarian distress is real even in Gujarat which not so long ago boasted of a booming agricultural economy. Bumper harvests have not always brought prosperity in their wake.
Nevertheless, there is still enough appreciation of the progress Gujarat has made in the present century.
The evidence is all too obvious: Good roads, 24x7 power supply even in villages, gleaming new factories, relatively stable law and order, to list just a few. The Congress effort to discredit these did not quite succeed.
The Gujaratis had grievances all right, but they were not strong enough for voters to punish the ruling dispensation, especially since the election was effectively a referendum on Modi.
What is the real impact of this result? The short answer is not really, either in Gujarat or in the country. Both the major parties have no local leaders worth of any consequence. The Gujarat control rests in Modi's hands as it has for 16 years now.
The Congress can protest all it wants with no likely results. Nationally, the BJP dominance continues, but it needs to guard its flanks in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, all of which elect new assemblies next year. Murmurs of dissatisfaction are already audible in these states.
That was the case in Gujarat for the past several months. Not keeping the party ear firmly glued to the ground has caused it considerable harm.
The Congress has little hope of any boost to its fortunes despite the new-found energy its new president, Rahul Gandhi, put into a basically hollow campaign for so long in Gujarat.
Its prospects in the upcoming Karnataka assembly election are at best dicey, with anti-incumbency affecting it in that state.
Modi's leadership remains most formidable even in the face of vociferous opposition and not just from the Congress or in Parliament. But the challenge of transcending the original mass base to become the undisputed leader of the entire country is still distant.
His party apparatchiks see to it that he remains loyal to the original cause. In the process, basic considerations of a liberal democracy -- tolerance, respect for other opinions, and freedom of expression -- are increasingly observed in default.
This quick take of the Gujarat poll must end on a sombre note. This campaign was the shrillest and ugliest this passionate follower of Indian politics has ever seen. And he is not alone.
The 68 per cent voter turnout, albeit just 3 percentage points lower as compared that in 2012 (but far short of the 80+ per cent in other states lately), indicates that the electorate, too, was mot as enthusiastic as before.
It appears to have seen this election not as an exuberant dance of democracy, but a bothersome ritual it could not avoid.
Shreekant Sambrani is a long-time resident of Gujarat and a keen observer of its politics.