For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to have struggled to cross the 100-seat mark in Gujarat when it was boasting about bagging 150 is suggestive of an undeniable downward turn in its popularity ratings. Considering that it tried all the tricks in the book, including several dirty ones, to cross the winning line showed that the party was uneasy about the outcome from the start, although Gujarat is Narendra Modi’s home state and few would have normally expected the locals to move decisively against a Gujarati Prime Minister. But the fact that the previously unheralded Congress did reasonably well by adding to its 2012 tally of 61 seats was a sign that for the first time in more than two decades, the BJP was facing a challenge. The increase in the number of seats won by the Congress, and the fall in the BJP’s, underlined the fact that but for the relentless campaign undertaken by Modi and almost his entire cabinet, the BJP would have been hard put to win.
Along with the intensity of the campaign, with the Prime Minister concentrating so much on one state when he went only a few times to Himachal Pradesh, which also went to the polls, what was also noteworthy was the eagerness with which he latched on to the Congress maverick, Mani Shankar Aiyar’s gaffe about calling Modi names to assert that any slur on the Prime Minister is an insult to Gujarat.
Arguably, neither Modi’s claim of personally representing the state’s asmita or pride, nor his preposterous charge against his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, about conspiring with Pakistan had any noticeable impact on the mindset of the voters. In all probability, the outcome would have been the same even otherwise. But what these unprecedented outbursts, including the one about Aiyar having planned a “supari” operation to eliminate Modi, showed was that the BJP had the scare of its life during the elections.
The nervousness may have been all the greater because the party could not have expected the Congress to put up a fight. Although the Grand Old Party (GOP) always had a 40 per cent vote share in the state, there had never been any expectations about its prospects because of its moribund condition with hardly any organisational muscle or effective local leaders capable of drawing crowds.
However, perhaps to its own — and certainly to the BJP’s surprise — Rahul Gandhi’s entrance made a dramatic difference. For the first time since it went out of power, the Congress could seriously think of regaining it. Even if in the end, the HAJ factor made up of Patidar leader Hardik Patel, backward caste leader Alpesh Thakor and Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani did not make as much of an impact as was earlier thought, it proved that it was possible to mobilise the disaffected elements in the state against the seemingly all-powerful ruling party.
It cannot be said for certain whether the Congress will be able to sustain this combination of ambitious first-timers in politics — two of whom do not belong to it — for any length of time, especially when the prize for which they came together has eluded them. Besides, the Congress does not have anyone based in the state who can keep them together with a focussed agenda. One cannot expect Rahul Gandhi to continue playing the role of a unifier once the battle drums are silenced.
For the Congress, therefore, it is almost back to square one in Gujarat as the state has once again slipped out of its grasp and it will have to re-engage all over again in building the party’s ground level base. But the big takeaway nevertheless for the GOP is that, first, it has succeeded in giving the BJP a scare which no one would have thought possible in 2014, or earlier when the Congress lost four assembly elections in a row; and, secondly, that the party can now look forward with considerable confidence to next year’s elections in the three BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where it may not be possible for Modi and BJP president Amit Shah to stave off the anti-incumbency factor as well as they have done in Gujarat.
For the BJP, the realisation must have dawned that the euphoria of 2014 is gone. Modi may still draw crowds, but it is possible to give him the jitters. It is unlikely that either he or his party will continue to make their arrogant claims about ushering in a Congress-mukt (free) India any longer. It will also help the party if the setback leads to a toning down of the haughtiness which has been its hallmark in the last few years.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)