The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged a victor in both Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat state Legislative Assembly elections. It is now important for both the main contestants, Congress and BJP, to introspect what have gone right in the victory and what do the losses imply. Equally, it is important for the nation to introspect about an election that was characterized as the prelude to 2019 general election, Gujarat particularly had prestige attached to it for being the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The BJP predictably won in Himachal Pradesh – 44 seats out of 68, conceding only 21 to Congress and 3 to others – following the established alternation model, which is good for any democracy. The margin, however, was humiliating for the Congress. The Congress fell to anti-incumbency factor and is comprehensively beaten. While it needs to introspect the dissatisfaction amongst its support bases, it is the leadership and organisational factors that deserves the party’s attention. Both are indeed state-specific as well as countrywide phenomena, and take a while to build up. BJP clearly has an edge in both. Congress could not find an alternative younger leader to Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, whose regime was steeped in corruption charges, to galvanize the party. Though backed by the Parivar’s organisational strength, BJP too appeared edgy about Prem Kumar Dhumal, the aging leader who has been twice Chief Minister of the state, before finally accepting him to lead the party. His losing the election could also indicate some rift within the party, though it has not damaged its prospects.
However, it was in Gujarat that the stakes were much higher for both the BJP and the Congress. Let us remember, Gujarat heralded the rise of the current leader of the party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The state also emerged as the laboratory of Hindutva, beyond Lal Krishna Advani’s truck with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the first experiment with the Hindutva with Ayodhya as the crucible and Advani’s rath yatra, ably coordinated and organised by his trusted disciple (later displacer) Narendra Modi. He rewarded him with the Chief Minister’s chair in 2001, when Keshubhai Patel went out of favour. Modi ably mixed Hindutva with Vikas (development) to consolidate himself and the party despite the setback of 2002.
Thus, the final results say more than we can expect. Hindutva and its impact consolidated, and new symbols added to Vikas, the BJP pitched itself at the personal prestige of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and on the success of his policies such as demonetization and the new Goods and Services Tax (GST) as well as part of his political campaign of Congress-mukta Bharat (a Congress-free India) – a highly undemocratic in a democratic polity for a ruling party to keep campaigning for the obliteration of the main opposition party.
The final tally in Gujarat – BJP 99, Congress 77 and others 3 – however, tells other stories. The result following a highly charged campaign, on the Congress side involving Rahul Gandhi personally camping and countering BJP and Narendra Modi with some aid from other senior leaders; and on the BJP side involving not only the party president and senior leaders from the state and the Union cabinet, but also personally a high-pitched and vicious and vitriolic attack against the Congress, the Nehru-Gandhi ‘dynasty’ and other senior leader of the party, including former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, from the Prime Minister himself, has been a victory with less than 100 with a margin of only 19 seats, as compared to 54 in 2012, from the Congress. Indeed, the victor takes all, and the party is rightly in a celebratory mood, a deafening one to demoralize the opponent, which has improved its tally by 19 seats, no mean achievement given literally an alarming decline faced by the Congress. But only a finer analysis would unravel implications for India.
Both the parties have improved their voting percentages – BJP from 48 to 49.1 and Congress from 39 to 41.4 – by 1.1 per cent and 2.4 per cent respectively in an election where overall voting percentage dipped from 71.32 per cent in 2012 to 64.4 per cent (the urban turnout was 65 per cent and rural was 70.6 per cent). There is a clear urban-rural divide in voting as well as in the results. Urban Gujarat had 55 seats and rural had 127, which are interestingly divided between the two contesting parties. BJP won 43 (78%) urban and 56 rural; Congress on the other hand won 12 urban, which is 3 more than the previous assembly and 71 rural. BJP’s strong performance in large cities – 15 out of 20 in Ahmadabad, 9 out of 10 in Vadodara, 15 out of 16 Surat is a notable feature of this election. Urban members of a caste group displayed greater propensity for the BJP. There was a noticeable Patel shift towards the Congress, first time since the 1990s. The Saurashtra-Kutch region, a BJP stronghold for over two decades, tilted towards the Congress giving it 30 seats out of 54 – up from 16 in 2012, giving the BJP only 23. It is equally significant that in 15 constituencies the margin of victory for the BJP has been 2,800 or less; in three of these less than a thousand. Beyond these the result indicates that the Patidar agitation, demonetization, GST, severe farm distress, unemployment, lack of affordable education impacted choice of the rural voters are turning on the heat on the BJP.
It is important to have a brief look at the Muslim voting in these elections; which is a difficult proposition at a time when the benefits of putting up a Muslim candidate have become low for political parties and Muslims candidates in this election have received only 1.6 per cent of the total valid votes polled. After the 1995 and 1998 elections the BJP has not put up any Muslim candidate; significantly 2002 came between 1998 and 2003 Assembly elections. The number of candidates from the community put up by the Congress also declined over the years and of the six candidates put up in this election has also declined. Twelve Muslims were elected in the Gujarat Assembly in 1980, after that their numbers have consistently declined. This also coincides with the BJP consolidation in the state. With the Congress also not openly wooing the community on the secular plank, apprehension among them is palpable.
Constituting 9.67 per cent of the state’s population, they were severely mauled in 2002; and studies have indicated them carrying an injured psyche. However, significantly no communal riot has taken since then, which has been variously described as the fear factor, an attempt to buy existential peace and there having been benefitted by the developmental policies of the Modi government in the state till 2014. They are significant in 30 out of 182 assembly seats. Muslim votes came down to 68.59 per cent in this election, a drop from 72.17 per cent in the previous election. Chanakya exit poll result declared on 15 December indicated that 81 per cent Muslim votes would go to the Congress. The community, however, was extremely guarded on the election eve, not prepared to indicate its preference. There was a 3.58 per cent decline in the Muslim voting in this election, very close to the decline in general voting. Despite the Chanakya prediction of 80 per cent of their votes going to the Congress, rough estimates indicate that nearly 30 to 40 per cent votes have gone to the BJP. This has been variously explained by commentators as the women supporting the party for the Triple Talaq legislation and the community expressing a quiet desire to buy a peaceful coexistence.
These bring in the issues of casteism, a charge that the BJP has leveled against Congress, and communalism. Long back, Professor Rajni Kothari had described the use of caste associations and clusters in elections as politicization of castes. Indeed, some feel that it is mere semantics. Howsoever we may describe this, fact remains that social coalitions, not only of castes, but also of religious communities is part of politicization and political processes in India. It is, however, necessary that this should neither lead to casteization, nor communalization of the society and the polity and no party should attempt such a politics. Whether Rahul Gandhi’s trying to build coalitions with Patels and Patidars should be treated as using casteism would be open to discussion from the strategy perspective. Indeed, promises of caste quota would push it in that category. He also transgressed into communal territory by pushing soft Hindutva – temple visits and avoiding Muslims and their issues, which may not counter the hard Hindutva of the BJP. But BJP, Prime Minister leading from the front, did wade into communal slush.
A close look at the election results clearly indicates that the wholehearted support for the BJP has been eroding, a Congress challenge notwithstanding. What saved the day for the party is not smart policies, as the PM is making it out to be, but smart and ‘mean’ poll machine of the party that could do real ‘mohalla’ level house-to-house and voter-to-voter micro-management. Indeed, the organisation led by Amit Shah has cracked the electoral conundrum in India for now. It is high time that the Congress and other rivals took note of. However, the fort is no longer impregnable. And, this must be felt within the party beyond the cacophonous and defeaning celebrations expressed by Union Minister Smriti Irani: ‘Jo jeeta wohi Sikandar’.
No discussion on this election would be complete without a discussion on the campaign strategy and style of the two contending parties – BJP and Congress. BJP with the most well-organised well-oiled and tenacious election machinery in the country began with an expected over-confidence. By now it is clear that with panna-parmukhs (page-in-charge), mohalla pramukhs (neighbourhood-in-charge), the organisational tentacles of the party are very well-spread. These not only keep a year-round contact with the voters, observing their political inclinations, persuading them and keeping a tab on their political and social requirement, but also help them with personal problems. A great way to ensure votes! This lessens the burden on electioneering when the elections come.
However, it was different during the 2017 Assembly elections. The Congress mounted a resolute effort to win the election. There would be different opinions on whether they came close to succeeding, but they did overcome organisational, institutional and leadership deficiencies under personal supervision of Rahul Gandhi, with occasional trips and speeches in election rallies by other senior leaders. A three-fold strategy was clearly visible. One, Rahul Gandhi made critical alliances with the agitating leaders of Gujarat – Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakor, which opened to critical social groups and their young support base. Two, he was making a calculated criticism of the Modi government policies, also in the process criticising the Prime Minister, on demonetization and GST, not on the concept, but on its implementation. Three, the contact with the voters was energized and fine-tuned to the extent possible. Rahul Gandhi was well-advised to keep the attack on the PM a low key and within the limits of parliamentary decorum. Only breach came when senior leader Mani Shankar Aiyar crossed the line describing the PM in unparliamentary words. Gandhi acted swiftly by expelling him from the party. We have no measure to assess the success of the strategy except the gains the party made in the number of seats and increase in the voting percentage, which could have been contributed by other factors as well.
Given a well-organised and well-oiled election machinery the BJP was in an advantageous position in the campaign race. It was self-assured as well; perhaps a little too much. It underestimated two factors – one, the groundswell of dissatisfaction against the Rupani government, which it thought would be overcome by the appeal of Narendra Modi as ‘their own’ leader and a pride of Gujarati ‘asmita’ (identity) and two, the capacity of the Congress to put its act together to mount a strong challenge, in which it was perhaps taken in by its own lampooning of the Congress heir apparent since 2014 election as a ‘pappu’ – a thumb-sucking kid. Since the party has never veiled its distaste of the Congress, particularly the Nehru-Gandhi family, its campaign was sharply critical of the party to begin with. However, following Aiyar’s avoidable indiscretion, which in all fairness did not go unpunished, Modi personally took over the retaliation, which was personally targeted against the Nehru-Gandhi family. He used another incident of a party hosted by Aiyar at his residence attended by a former Pakistan minister and a general along with a host of Congress leaders including Dr Manmohan Singh. The PM avoidably used this to describe this an act against the nation, Pakistan’s interference in India’s elections, going to the extent of suggesting that at the instance of Pakistan the Congress wants to make Ahmed Patel, a Rajya Sabha MP, the Chief Minister of the state; an obvious hint of the seeming danger to the Gujarati identity if a Muslim became Chief Minister. This predictably elicited a strong reaction from the Congress, a strong criticism in the media; the reverberations are now being heard even in the Winter Session of parliament. Pakistan too said that it should be kept out of India’s domestic politics. Coming from the Prime Minister of India, such blatant sectarian campaign was avoidable to say the least. Did it yield any dividends to the party? In this closely contested election, some commentators suggest that it impacted some of the urban seats.
Modi’s dominance maximum in voters
Now election is over in both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh and as results are pointing out, people of both the states have legitimized the development agenda of PM Modi and BJP. In 182-seat of Gujarat Assembly elections, BJP managed to bag 99 seats where 92 is required for structuring the government. On the other hand congress too gradually succeeded in snatching 77 seats. In this election, independent candidate like Jignesh Mevani, (Dalit activist) and other five including NCP also got people’s favor. Here, it is worth mentioning that in previous 2012 legislative election, BJP won 115 seats while congress secured 61 seats.
In Himachal, BJP remains victorious against incumbent congress party. Out of 68 seats in Himachal Pradesh, BJP defeated congress winning 44 seats where congress only managed to get 21 seats. In Himachal, communist party of India (Marxist) also secured one seat after record 24 years. The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal got major setback and was defeated by independent candidate Rajinder Rana from Sujanpur constituency by a margin of 1911 votes.
After this invincible victory in Gujarat and Himachal, BJP will govern 19 states where in 14 states, it is in full majority and in others 5 states it is in alliance with regional parties. Not only this, if we look on the numbers of BJP legislative members in all the states, it is maximum 1428 in last 24 years and as a result of this BJP will be controlling almost 75 per-cent region of the country where 70 per-cent of population reside. It is significant to point out that in last three years of Modi; BJP has been invincible in 12 out of 18 states. This only happened in Indiara Gandhi’s tenure in 1967, when her party won 13 states out of 18 states in her initial three years period as Prime minister. However, it should not be forgotten that at that time country had no alternative except Congress.
The BJP’s biggest win this year was Uttar Pradesh, where Yogi Adityanath is leading 325 MLAs in the country’s largest state Assembly. BJP also won Uttarakhand, and formed governments in Manipur and Goa.
Due to clash between Lalu’s RJD and Nitish’s JDU, BJP also locked its government this year in Bihar with old partner Nitish’s JDU. The TDP, which governs Andhra Pradesh, is a member of the NDA. So are the NPF in Nagaland and SDF in Sikkim. The BJP is also in alliance with other parties in state, like Jammu and Kashmir.
Following the Himachal and Gujarat election result, only nine states remain untouchable for BJP. Tamil Nadu (AIADMK), Kerala (CPI-M), West Bengal (Trinamool Congress), Odisha (Biju Janata Dal), Meghalaya (Congress), Telangana (Telangana Rashtra Samiti), Mizoram (Congress), Delhi (Aam Aadmi Party) and Tripura (CPI-M) are among those states where BJP has not extended its foot print.
The BJP is not a leader starved party; it generally has had too many leaders. However, Gujarat, which was ruled by Narendra Modi for 13 years, has had two successions since his elevation as the Prime Minister, but the first post-Modi election laid bare the state’s leadership deficit. Amit Shah, Modi’s alter ego, moved with him to New Delhi to take charge of the party for his convenience. Anandi Ben and Rupani have proved unequal to the task. Naturally, the party was over-dependent on its central leadership for campaigning and delivering the state to the party. Not only the PM held 34 meetings, other Union cabinet ministers kept visiting the state at regular intervals for campaigning; so much so that to facilitate this the Winter Session of the parliament was delayed by a month. In fact, towards the closing days of the campaign, the party was alarmed by the growing support for the Congress. Not only did the PM increase his rallies, he also chose the Aiyar indiscretion to make a polarizing charge. Obviously, this deficit in state after state would need pondering in the coming polls in four states in 2018. An alarm bell must ring and there is a certain amount of course correction that needs to be done.
Congress is in a worse situation both organisationally and leadership. It is for the first time that Rahul Gandhi has demonstrated his organisational and leadership capabilities, but this last lap charge was good to get a good result, not to win the election. The party has no organisation in the Gujarat, not worth the name in most states. In order to build Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, other leadership capabilities have been kept in wraps. His ascent to the party presidentship, now a reality, remained a suspense for a long time. Others, including former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh could only sing his paean, he was not even authorised to make a critical suggestion or offer to guide him. Obviously, all wanted him to get the credit for a win in Gujarat. But despite a creditable performance it was not enough to win the election. The party has no identifiable leader in Gujarat. A crisis of confidence would have prevailed had the Congress won and Rahul Gandhi led high command designated a non-entity as the leader and Chief Minister. Indeed, some of the leaders from the national capital – mind you, none of them is a national leader–visited the state for campaign, but the campaign was not led by an identifiable and notable state leadership. More than the BJP, the Congress is likely to face this crisis in forthcoming state elections. It is not beside the point that the party has lost prominent and identifiable young leadership to the BJP in some states, which helped the BJP to win and form the government. Unless Rahul Gandhi attends to this on an emergency basis and gives state organisations and leadership functional autonomy, the road to Congress revival would have deep potholes and elation at the success in Gujarat would be absolutely meaningless.
Elections to the state Assemblies in India are part of a year-to-year process, unending, keeping the parties on tenterhooks. No wonder the Prime Minister is pushing for ‘simultaneousizing’ elections (see cover story Uday India, October 17, 2017), whether practicable or not. This also calls for an unwritten commonly agreed upon code of conduct on how they would approach elections programmatically without personal rancour.
The BJP has reasons to celebrate, but sagacity and politeness in victory would not make the party look weak. A mirror cracked is the best way to describe this election from the Congress perspective. The BJP has won, the Congress lives to fight another day.
By Prof. Ajay K. Mehra
(Director(Honorary, Centre for Public Affairs)