Given the role of farm distress especially, BJP must get growth back; for the Congress, caste politics won’t do the trick
With even the most optimistic exit poll not giving the Congress party anywhere near the 80 seats it finally won, it is clear the Gujarat elections have helped bolster new Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s credentials considerably. The fact that the campaign got the BJP flustered enough to bring in the Pakistan angle—this was also a low point in the electioneering—suggests the battle was closer than the final 99-80 tally suggests. At the same time, there can be no doubt the BJP was fighting an exceptionally tough battle—it has been in power in the state for 22 years on a trot so that would mean a significant anti-incumbency at the best of times; it speaks volumes for prime minister Narendra Modi’s immense popularity that despite several other factors, the BJP has increased its vote share—and ever since Modi took over, the BJP has grown from strength to strength and is in power in 19 states today.
Is Gujarat a harbinger for future state elections and, more important, the central elections in 2019? Predicting an election is a mug’s game, but a few points can safely be made. The BJP managed to overcome the threat posed by Hardik Patel to its Patidar vote-bank and Modi’s personal popularity—and the economic growth he has delivered to the state over 15 years—ensured that while both demonetisation and GST badly hit its trader voters, they still voted for him; to that extent, even if the BJP campaign didn’t focus as much on development as you would have hoped for, this certainly played a role. The biggest loss for the party was in the Saurashtra region, suggesting large agrarian distress played a big role. How much was due to the cotton crop or groundnuts doing badly is not clear. But if the government had raised import duties on edible oils earlier, this would have helped the farmers in the area. And if, instead of hounding Monsanto that fostered the cotton revolution, the government had let it introduce new technologies, this may have helped, though it is likely the impact would have been more in the medium term.
The answer to agrarian distress is not the farm loan waivers the Congress promised in Gujarat—the BJP promised this in Uttar Pradesh—but genuine freeing of the sector, including removing export controls; while the BJP is focused, rightly, on creating new irrigation facilities across the country, it is doing precious little on marketing freedom and has been quick to impose all manner of controls that hurt the farming sector. An electoral prescription will differ from state to state, but there is little doubt that faster growth, especially in agriculture, is the biggest guarantor of victory—indeed, the BJP getting 99 seats despite anti-incumbency, Hardik, demonetisation and GST is a testimony to the fact that Gujarat really prospered under the BJP. So, the BJP has to focus on ensuring growth recovers, not on more sops for the poor or farm loan waivers. For the Congress, the Hardik fiasco should make it clear caste politics can go just so far, especially in prosperous areas. Indeed, under Rahul Gandhi, the party needs to present a credible alternate model of growth—just as it tried when it talked of simplifying GST, the party needs to convince the electorate it has an economic model that works better; the povertarianism and the rights-only policy of Sonia Gandhi is long past its sell-by date since it never delivered either jobs or growth.