By Ashima Makhija
The Gujarat elections had everyone falling from the edge of their saffron seats. As the nail-biting election drew to a close, the BJP breathed a sigh of relief. In spite of the Patidar agitation, the voluble dissatisfaction against the hasty and obscure implementation of the GST and the large-scale agrarian crisis, the saffron party secured an eroded majority of 99 seats.
Yet, the Gujarat assembly election has become an indication of the palpable end of the Modi wave that swept the nation in 2014 and the assembly elections of early 2017, and more importantly, the resurgence of a strong opposition in the country. As the media took forward its electoral commentary, it began to be increasingly apparent that although the BJP had secured its victory, it was the Congress that had made substantial gains in the state.
The electoral scoreboard
The BJP bagged close to 49.1 percent votes, down from nearly 60 percent in 2014 but higher than the almost 48 percent it had polled in the 2012 state assembly polls. Although its vote shares expanded from the previous election, it lost several vital constituencies to the Congress. The Patidar agitations and the consequent alignment of Hardik Patel with the Congress led to the defeat of BJP in the Saurashtra region, which had for long been a saffron stronghold. Similarly, several rural constituencies, which have been plagued by droughts, floods, mounting debts and low MSPs (Minimum Support Prices), tilted in favour of the Congress.
So what actually worked in the Congress’ favour was the expanding dissatisfaction with the BJP regime and the growing awareness about the chinks in Gujarat’s “ideal” model. Armed with the missiles of anti-incumbency, the Congress won an impressive 77 seats. Their vote share has risen to about 41.4 percent this time, implying a difference with the BJP of approximately 7.7 percent. This is a significant improvement for the Congress from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when the difference in vote share was nearly 30 percent.
How did Congress circumvent the aggressive cow?
The central feature of Congress’ battle strategy was a localised and pragmatic campaign. Despite the resurgence in Rahul Gandhi’s popularity, he was not in a position to directly proclaim a war against PM Modi. The BJP’s campaigns have always emphasised on a top-down approach wherein apex leaders and Union Ministers woo the state voters. The Congress countered with a de-centralised and localised approach.
The Congress spoke of the inefficiencies of the saffron regime in providing relief to the peasants and agricultural labourers in rural regions. In the urban centres, it emphasised on the ill-effects of GST, which had slumped trade and supply. For the Dalits, OBCs and Patidars, the Congress rose as a warrior fighting against the injustices meted out to the minorities. The BJP’s reputation as a party of the Hindus and Brahmins, which solely advances the interests of the majority, worked to the Congress’ advantage as it projected itself as a protector of Dalits and OBCs.
Why did the BJP still win?
Although the Congress finally offered some substantial resistance and genuine opposition to the BJP, the state of Gujarat is draped in the hues of saffron for the sixth consecutive time. There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, Rahul could not sway the urban voters. While the traders in Gujarat were strongly disappointed with the implementation of the twin shocks of demonetisation and GST, their apparent dissatisfaction found no expression in the results. The BJP not only won urban votes but crushed the Congress; 15 out of 21 seats in Ahmedabad, all 12 seats in Surat city, six of eight in Rajkot, nine out of 10 in Vadodara and all four in Bhavnagar. That can be viewed as a clean sweep.
Secondly, the lack of local leaders in the Congress, who command authority and credibility among the public, is a significant reason for voters to have remained tied to the BJP camp. The TINA (there is no alternative) factor worked in favour of BJP and Congress lost seats that it could’ve otherwise bagged with a few tall leaders.
Thirdly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP leaders made their best efforts to invoke Gujarati emotions. The narrative he wanted to build for the Gujarat election was not the present government’s performance but the gains and achievements of the past BJP governments. By inducing the strong sentiments linked to Gujarati pride and identity and how the BJP government has been committed to it, the party garnered immense support in the region.
And finally, having an orator as powerful as PM Modi has its share of benefits. Voters in Gujarat still vouch for his leadership, despite the growing disillusionment against the BJP’s style of functioning and its economic policies. Modi addressed 34 rallies in 15 days. His towering personality and unchallenged leadership drove the party to victory, despite the shortcomings of the government.
What does the future entail?
The eminence of the Gujarat verdict can neither be undermined nor denied. Winning in Gujarat holds utmost significance for the BJP. Not only is Gujarat the home state of Modi and Shah, but it is also central to the BJP’s marketing strategy. After all, it was the Gujarat model of governance that highlighted the achievements and dedication of NaMo and drew voters towards him in 2014. The approval of the Gujarati people is crucial for the party. Thus, this victory means that the BJP still has the mandate of the people.
But there were several features unique to this year’s Gujarat elections. For the first time since 2002, a scope was created in Gujarat for substantive discussion on the issues of education, health, farming, trading, small industries and land. Gujarat’s poor performance on indices like infant mortality and literacy rate were brought to light. And more importantly, the BJP’s impregnable fortress in Gujarat seems to have lost its former glory and power. The role played by the Congress, with Gandhi at its helm, suggests that the opposition in our country has not completely been reduced to Twitter jokes and memes.
The revitalisation of the Congress and the possibility of a unified and focused Opposition have opened up the battle of 2019. It was earlier assumed to be an easy catch for BJP. But now, as BJP suffers from a “defeat in its victory” and Congress rejoices with a “victory in its defeat“, it seems plausible that the Congress will re-emerge as a strong national party with the resources to wrest power from the incumbents.
Featured Image Source: Flickr
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