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The message from Gujarat 2017

By N Sathiya Moorthy
December 21, 2017 15:57 IST
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Performance counts more than populist slogans when you are in power, says N Sathiya Moorthy.


IMAGE: BJP workers celebrate at the party headquarters in New Delhi after their victory in the assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Photograph: Kamal Kishore/PTI Photo.

Through all the celebrations and condemnations, explanations and excuses, the nation has forgotten to congratulate and thank Gujarat for one of the most peaceful elections in the country in recent times.

Despite the long history of communal tensions, clashes and riots over the past several decades, the much-contested elections went on with clock-work precision, and without any possibility of violence, booth-capturing or worse.


It is this ‘Gujarat model’ that the nation can be proud of, and try to replicate it.

It also raises the question: With no predictions of tension and violence in the air at any time, why did the Election Commission feel it necessary to conduct two-phase polling?

Considering that the state’s was a stand-alone election in the neightbourhood, the EC could still have commissioned police and paramilitary personnel almost at will for the polls, even providing for unpredictable eventualities.

As conventional wisdom has it, multiple-phase polling is generally reserved only for large states with a possibility of violence, and the situation is reviewed election after election -- and Gujarat did not fit into the bill since the previous 2012 assembly polls at the very least.

It is also conventional political wisdom that multiple-phase polling helps better-organised, cadre-based political parties even more than their own inherent grassroots-level strengths permit.

No marks for guessing which is the better-organised political party in Gujarat or the rest of the nation, for now, or even in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

All the other parties put together do not hold even the shadow of a candle, leave aside a candle, to the Bharatiya Janata Party.

This too has more than one message for the 2019 elections, depending on which side of the wall you stand, and which side of the wall you want to read from.

Yet, in relatively large states like Tamil Nadu, against a medium-size state like Gujarat, the EC has for long insisted on single-phase polling.

The avowed reason was to check against the migration of political party cadres from one constituency to another during the ‘polling holiday’ in theirs, for election work (read: ‘election management’ of the Indian kind).

Extrapolated to Gujarat, it may be saying a lot more than is readable from the straight wall -- and there may be an added message on the result than is already acknowledged.

The election figures speak for themselves, and much has been written about it already.

In a nutshell, the BJP’s urban voter-base, dating back to the pre-Emergency days all across north India, seemed to have helped even more than the ‘Modi magic’, per se, but the latter was still the overwhelming cause and binding factor.

It was thus that the party bagged 16 out of 21 seats in Ahmedabad, 15 out of 16 in Surat -- where the ‘social media’ (alone) claimed that traders had staged massive, anti-GST protests only months ago -- nine out of 10 in Vadodara and six out of eight in Rajkot, all adding up to 46 out of 55 ‘urban seats’.

This also hides the fact that Modi’s famous ‘Gujarat model’ that the party had promised to replicate for the nation in 2014, has not penetrated even in his compact home-state through his continuous terms as the chief minister.

Interestingly, or ironically, most media analyses of the assembly polls now has stopped with comparing the current Gujarat results with the previous assembly poll figures from 2012, inadvertently (?) skipping the LS achievements two years later, which alone showed up Modi for what he is worth it.

True, the voting percentage itself shot from 63.66 to 68.4, or by five per cent, between 2014 and now, yet it was still short of the higher 71.32 per cent from 2012.

In a way, it should show that between 2012 and 2014, a substantial per cent of Gujarat voters had felt disenchanted already, whoever they were, whatever the reason.

Even today, despite the high-voltage, all-round poll campaign, not all of them woke up, or did not want to be woken up.

In terms of BJP’s vote-share, the anomaly is even more striking.

After shooting up from 47.85 per cent to 59.1 per cent between 2012 and 2014, it has plummeted by 10 per cent, to 49.1 per cent this time. 

Against this, the Congress’s 38.93 per cent of 2012 went down to 32.9 in 2014, but has shot up by 8.5 per cent in 2017.

What should worry the strategists of a more systematic, and systems-driven party as the BJP has since become, is the fact that after Uttar Pradesh, where they swept the polls in seat-share and vote-share individually, the party has not crossed the magic, 50-per cent vote-share mark, indicating a temptation for the rest to come together.

In the case of Gujarat, there are not many anti-BJP parties and groups left out of the Congress-led combine, but that would only be a statistical breather for the party, not even a tactical one after a point.

This is because those eight per cent of the voters who did not vote either of the two top parties/groups, too seem to have suffered from ‘anti-incumbency’ against the long BJP rule in the state, or unimpressed by Modi’s performance as prime minister, or both.

They may still consider voting against the BJP, a possible option for 2019. But not the other way round.

There is no denying that the Congress losing some of its top-guns in their chosen constituencies. But then the ruling BJP also saw voters rejecting five Cabinet ministers.

Other electoral indicators were also ominous.

The BJP won 25 out of 99 seats by a 500 to 1000 vote-margin, which says a lot about governance and elections, policy success and personality appeal.

Of academic interest is the fact that in seven of these 25 seats, the ‘spoilers’ Nationalist Congress Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party polled more than the victory margin, which was again in the 500-1000 vote-range, thus denying the Congress rival as many.

If one considered the very fact that every seat won by the Congress thus would have been one lost to the BJP, it could well have meant that the BJP would have got only 92 while the anti-BJP tally could well have gone up from 83 to 90, a difference of only two seats -- thus possibly inviting the governor’s ‘effective intervention’ like it happened in Goa and Arunachal Pradesh.

But of course, it is only in the realm of speculation, but it is not so, if one were to consider the possibilities of the losing candidates, not only in the seven but in all 25 seats and more, challenging the results through an ‘election petition’ in the Gujarat high court. 

Considering that all the rival MLAs who ‘crossed over’ to the BJP ahead of the Rajya Sabha polls too lost, while the BJP nominee in PM Modi’s home constituency lost even his security deposit, party strategists could have been shaken more than already, if the final figures were not what they ended up being. 

It was a ‘Modi election’ all the way, which won the BJP the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, but the ‘Modi magic’ did not work, as much, this time even in his Gujarat, so to say -- particularly when considered from the task that awaits the power-driven prime minister from the Target-2019  position.

His party boss Amit Shah may have already pricked a hole, by vowing ahead of the Gujarat polls that they were aiming at 150 seats in a total of 182, and could not reach even the two-thirds of his goal (and not the membership of the House, as is often taken). 

The election was top-heavy for all parties, and naturally so when no other major state, barring Himachal Pradesh, was going to the polls around the time.

But in the case of the BJP, the poll was being managed exclusively from Delhi, by the Modi-Shah duo, both of them incidentally from the state, and the common voter did not possibly know even the name of his chief minister (Vijay Rupani), leave aside that of the ruling party bosses at different levels, even after the elections are all over and the BJP has hit a ‘sixer’, however weak.

Despite ‘face-saving’ boast of the BJP kind just now, it was a pyrrhic victory, after all, if one considered the kind of campaign that the party and its top-most leaders took to, that too for an assembly election in their own backyard for long.

If anything, the Gujarat voters seem to have voted for ‘Gujarati pride’, which when translated should mean not handing over yet another resounding victory to their own prime minister, but to limit it to make sure that they do not carry the stigma of voting out their own prime minister, that too in a state-level election, and the rest of the nation, and the nation’s high-decibel Hindutva/Sangh Parivar Modi bhakts end up blaming them for it all.

The message for the BJP strategists for 2019 is clear.

That if native Gujarat voters are not ready to buy PM Modi’s charge of ‘Pakistani intervention’ in the state, Ayodhya may not do it for the party, especially if one considered the Indian electoral historicity that no same issue has won or lost elections more than once in living memory.

For the Congress and for party’s new boss, Rahul Gandhi, the Gujarat results are a morale-booster even when they have both lost a golden opportunity to rock the ruling party’s boat in the PM’s home state and shock the man into possible silence, at least for a time.

But Gujarat is also where Congress has too many problems, considering that the new, caste-based allies of the party and their youthful, equally inexperienced leaders are not going to keep quiet between now and 2019, even if meant that they may still want to continue the poll alliance but even more on their terms!

Even before coming to head the party formally, which he has done since, Rahul Gandhi was not known as an alliance-builder of the BJP, Vajpayee-Advani and Modi-Shah kind, but only as a possible spoiler.

If he is at all serious about the job on hand, Rahul, even as he yields to the post-anointment, post-Gujarat temptation of wanting to ‘build up’ the party, he needs to build up a strong opposition alliance across the nation, an impossible task otherwise, but not as impossible if one studied the ‘Janata experiment’, however short-lived, in its entirety.

More than populist slogans, performance counts when you are in power. That was the message from 1998, 2004 and 2014, and now from Gujarat 2017.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

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