Every election throws up its lessons and the deeper meanings and nuances can be drawn only after the dust settles down. Gujarat has been a strange one, where the BJP can rightly celebrate its victory and the Congress too can feel largely satisfied with its performance, especially when compared to the 2012 elections.
The last time, in 2012, with Narendra Modi completely dominating the state, his party won 116 seats compared to 117 the time before that (2007), and its vote share fell from 49.12% (2007) to 47.9% (2012), while the Congress’s rose. In 2017, the BJP’s vote share might actually inch up, even if it wins less seats. On both counts, the Congress has done better than the last time. To those who say the comparison with 2012 is wrong, since Modi no longer runs the state, the proper response is that Modi’s elevation to the national level should work in his favour.
The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey published in early December had shown that both parties were running neck and neck, the BJP’s share steadily declining and the Congress’s rising.
Even if one dismisses it as a one-off poll (people like only those polls that meet their expectations and biases), the BJP must have taken it seriously; or its own grassroots feedback must have alerted it to the changing trends.
From then on, the party’s number one, and perhaps only, election campaigner capable of winning an election, switched tack. ‘Mughals’ and ‘Pakistan’, both loaded (and no longer coded) words that meant Muslims, were deployed in references to Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. Modi called the elevation of Gandhi as the new party chief as ‘Aurangzeb raj‘.
Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ill-advised dig about Modi, terming him ‘neech’, was seized upon by the prime minister within minutes of it being uttered – it also gave much fodder to friendly television channels to go to town, amplifying it.
But undoubtedly the nadir was the almost direct allegation questioning former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s patriotism for the singular sin of attending a private dinner where Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri was present, along with several retired diplomats, politicians and journalists.
There was no subtlety deployed, no hint or innuendo – Modi played it up to the hilt, talking about the dinner and suggesting that there was a Pakistani plan to meddle with the Gujarat elections and Singh – the prime minister of India for ten years – was part of it.
This was, to use the much-abused cliché, a new low in the toxicity that had crept into Modi’s campaign. ‘Vikas‘ had disappeared long ago, to be replaced by Gujarati ‘asmita (self respect)’, but when even that was looked ineffectual – it was the Gujaratis themselves, and large sections of them, who were opposing him – the party had decided Muslim-bashing, directly and through piercing dog whistles, would work.
The dream of Hindu consolidation had come unstuck when caste emerged as an important factor – Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani (collectively called HAJ by the BJP, yet another creative instance of Hindutva campaigners – then polarisation seemed the only way forward.
That in the process the dignity of the office of the prime minister has been several damaged and that the secular fabric of the country, already frayed, has been torn a bit more, does not seem to matter. The BJP is now back to basics and even when there is no election going on, it will continue on this trajectory – already the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has said that anyone living in India is a Hindu. The war against the minorities will pick up speed now, especially since the BJP sees electoral dividends.
It is too early to see if that one thing worked for the party or if there are many other reasons why it came through and the Congress got left behind. The Congress had stitched together an improbable alliance, kept it together all these months and Rahul Gandhi came of political age in Gujarat. The party did not make overt gestures to the Muslims these few weeks of campaigning. It has, in the end, done much better than many had hoped.
But the BJP has got its answer for the coming state elections and then for the big one in 2019 – stick to the new Gujarat model. Not the one about infrastructural development, creation of jobs, increase in investment, etc, but about designing a campaign that continuously demonises Muslims, panders to the worst prejudices and resentments of the Hindus, and find even deeper bottoms to scrape in its bid to polarise. If a man like Manmohan Singh can be accused of treason, what else is left? He is no ‘foreigner’ – that card against Sonia Gandhi stopped working a long time ago and the ‘Hybrid Jersey baccha’ has turned out to be an effective rival. But the BJP will find something and use that to spearhead its future campaigns – and Modi will be leading the charge.