If one goes to Delhi’s India International Centre, Press Club of India; and if one reads the commentaries of Delhi’s leading intellectuals and columnists, countdowns of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s downfall began on December 18, the day results of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly-elections were out. In fact, many have already declared Rahul Gandhi, who has just assumed the office of the Congress President, as India’s next Prime Minister; for them Modi government has become lame duck and Rahul’s victory (through a Congress-led coalition) in 2019 is just a matter of formality. In other words, in their opinion, Rahul Gandhi is the “real” winner in the just concluded rounds of elections in the country.
And all this despite the fact that the two states – Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh-where elections were held, will have the governments led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In fact, the BJP will rule Gujarat for the sixth consecutive time, a rare record in independent India’s political history; only the communists had a better record for having ruled West Bengal uninterrupted in between 1977 and 2011. As far as Himachal Pradesh is concerned, the BJP has snatched away the state from Congress, which was ruling the state. And that too handsomely with a massive margin. In fact, with victory in Himachal Pradesh, the BJP has taken its total tally of states under its governments to 19, including the five it rules with allies. As Modi said on Wednesday morning at the BJP parliamentary meet, “This is a big victory. We are now ruling 19 states. Even Indira Gandhi, when she was in power, was in 18 states.”
Who then is the winner? Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi? Well, for the common man, Modi is the most popular and powerful leader in India today, winning elections of all varieties, one after another, after assuming office in 2014. However, for the intellectual establishment, overwhelmingly dominated by university professor, media barons and elites, retired bureaucrats, artists and writers, think tanks, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights activists, Rahul has emerged as the only ray of hope to fight against the evils associated with Modi. That this establishment, nurtured carefully by the Congress-led or supported governments over 70 years, has never accepted Modi as the Prime Minister and always considered him to be “an outsider” is a different matter, though I have explained this phenomenon on various occasions in this column many a time in the past. But then the fact remains that this establishment remains very potent even today; it creates perceptions. It has now made Rahul Gandhi a true fighter who can unseat Modi from the power in 2019. It is in ful agreement with Rahul who said on Monday that the poll outcome was a big jolt for the BJP, which was restricted to less than 100 seats in the 182-member Gujarat Assembly. He had questioned Modi’s credibility, adding that no one listened to him anymore. Speaking to reporters outside Parliament, Gandhi had said, “BJP ko zabardast jhatka pada hain Gujarat main (BJP has received a jolt in Gujarat).”
Surprisingly, this pro-Rahul establishment does not provide a single explanation as to why the Congress lost in Himachal Pradesh. In fact, a report suggests that all the places in the Himalayan state where Rahul had addressed “huge election rallies” were lost to the BJP. The standard argument that the Congress-led Himachal government might have suffered the anti-incumbency factor is not being cited by the Congress and its supporters. And that is understandable; this argument will not work in Gujarat. The stunned silence of the Rahul, his party and his growing admirers makes one wonder whether Himachal Pradesh exists at all as a state of India.
Let us see the explanations that are cited to make Rahul the “real winner”. The most basic explanation is that the BJP’ 2012 tally of 115 seats has come down to 99 in the 182-member Gujarat Assembly, a decrease of 16 seats. On the other hand, the Congress which had bagged 61 seats in 2012 now has 77, an increase of 16 seats (thee of its allied parties and independents have also won, taking the tally to 80). Secondly, it is said that in 91 urban constituencies where 25 percent people of the state lived, the BJP got only 61 seats, down from 76 that it had won in 2102. On the other hand, the Congress tally, correspondingly, has gone up from 14 to 21. Thirdly, in 92 constituencies where female literacy is above 69 percent, the BJP lost two seats (66 now, 68 in 2012), whereas the Congress improved its count from 22 seats to 26. Similarly in seats where minorities are more than 10 percent, the BJP won only in 57of them as against 65 in 2012.
However, there is another side to the picture. Paradoxically, the BJP has lost seats, but gained more popular votes, compared to 2012. As against 48 percent of popular votes, this time the BJP, according to the Election Commission data, has got 49.1 percent of the vote share. The Congress, on the other hand, has got 41.4% of votes. To be precise, in this election, the BJP got 14724427 votes as against Congress’ 129028. In 31 seats that are entirely rural, the BJP managed to secure 22, nine (9) more than 2012(the Congress slipped from 17 to 8). In 32 “richer households” (ownership of two-wheelers), the BJP got 23, up from 12 in 2012(the Congress fell from 17 to 8). Similarly in 22 rural constituencies having households with basic amenities (having toilets), the BJP doubled its tally to 14(compared to 2012 elections) Congress’ halved to 6.
Any dispassionate analysis will make it obvious that Congress’ (which, incidentally, has always remained a force in the state even without power; it had always managed about 40 percent of the votes in Gujarat even when Modi was the Chief Minister) better performance this time is primarily due to Rahul’s successful strategy of stitching a social coalition with several smaller community leaders, including Hardik Patel who leads the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS), Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor. That explains why the BJP received the major jolt in the areas of Saurashtra and Kutch where these three leaders were active. Coincidentally, these are the areas where there is considerable farmers’ distress over the non-remunerative process of cotton and groundnuts. They have clearly punished the BJP.
What then are the broad conclusions that one can have from the just concluded assembly elections? In my considered view, these are the following:
Admittedly, Rahul Gandhi has come of the age, with his aggressive campaigning and capacity to co-opt forces that are uncomfortable with or opposed to Modi’s style of governance or the BJP. But it will be premature to be over- jubilant that now onwards Modi’s will be a passing phenomenon.
On the other hand, if Modi could still win Gujarat, one of India’s richer states with the unpopular and hard reforms like demonetisation and GST( against which Rahul’s electioneering veered around – remember his describing GST as Gabbar Singh Tax), in the coming days he will have a less daunting time with these measures giving beneficial results.
This does not mean that Modi is unchallengeable. His biggest challenge now comes from the relatively prosperous and politically active farmers who want more “Minimum Support Prices” of their products, free electricity, cheap fertilizers and non-returnable loans from the banks. This challenge will be coupled with demand for more jobs whether people have necessarily skills for the jobs or not. Demands for more reservations, including in the private sector, will be the natural fallouts. It remains to be seen how Modi will face these challenges. So far he has shunned populism and taken risks for bold policy reforms. Will he now change and compete with Rahul (or for that matter with all the leading politicians in the country, including in his own BJP) in populism of all hue to win in 2019? Time will tell.
By Prakash Nanda