New Delhi: In any other scenario, the election win for the Congress in Himachal Pradesh and Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat on Thursday, preceded by the maiden victory for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi municipal elections, would have been interpreted as sending out mixed political signals. However, given the BJP’s propaganda machinery’s ability to spin everything to its advantage, the discussions are bound to be around the saffron party’s unprecedented win in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.
It is indeed a historic win for the BJP in Gujarat, as Union home minister Amit Shah declared soon after trends began to show some consistency. Even Modi as the chief minister of the state could not go past 127 seats in the 182-member assembly. The Congress chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki secured the greatest win for the grand-old party in the 1985 elections that were held against the backdrop of former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assaisation. The Congress won 149 seats.
All that is past now. With Modi as the prime minister, Gujarat has handed the BJP a whopping 156 seats with around 53% vote share. Most high-profile Congress leaders lost in the process. With a tally under 20 and a drop in vote share from around 40% to 26%, the party’s significance in the state has been reduced further – even as the fledgling AAP, which polled around 13% of the votes, looks to replace it in the role of the primary opposition party.
The Gujarat assembly elections’ results are significant in multiple ways.
1) Strength of BJP’s election machinery on display again
The results once again show the massive strength of BJP’s election machinery. Sensing a fatigue and even anti-incumbency resulting from 27-year uninterrupted rule, the BJP started taking strong corrective measures more than a year ago. It replaced its non-performing chief minister Vijay Rupani with an inexperienced but trusted Bhupendra Patel, then only the head of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. With his appointment, the BJP not only sent out a message that anyone irrespective of their background can achieve great things purely because of merit but also managed to placate the influential Patel community, which led the Patidar agitation a few years ago. It did not merely change the chief minister but also the entire cabinet to ensure greater representation of different communities and address the political ambitions of its cadre.
Then it removed Jitu Vaghani as the state president of the BJP and appointed C.R. Paatil, who is known as a strict administrator and an able organiser. With his appointment, the BJP was also able to defuse some dissent among traders and businessmen in southern Gujarat, especially Surat – where Paatil hails from.
As if such moves were not sufficient, Modi himself addressed 36 rallies in the run-up to the elections, while his trusted deputy Amit Shah was fully invested in micromanaging the elections. The saffron party flew down all national leaders and BJP chief ministers like Himanta Biswa Sarma and Adityanath to the state. All of these put together showed the seriousness with which it fought the elections, even in a state that had been the “laboratory of Hindutva“.
In contrast, the Congress – as the the primary opposition party – showed no seriousness in setting up a good fight. Rather, its leaders thought that they would fight the elections on local issues and depend on candidates’ goodwill. They focussed on door-to-door campaigns without the involvement of the national leadership, which they feared could invite controversy. The campaign may still have worked to an extent, had the party been active on the ground for the last five years. But such was its management that though the party won 77 seats in the 2017 assembly elections, it was only left with 56 legislators with the rest defecting to the BJP over the years.
AAP led a spirited fight and articulated neglected concerns in the state, forcing the BJP to address some of those. Its campaign enthused many voters spread across various castes and communities, young and old, but in the end it was too small a party to take on the mammoth BJP in Gujarat.
2) Hindutva remains dominant political strategy
The BJP’s emphatic victory in Gujarat once again shows that Hindutva remains the most-dominant political strategy, and any form of Mandal-based politics is proving to be no match for it. The Congress attempted to go back to its social engineering formula in the state by bringing together OBC, Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim communities to counter the BJP’s twin planks of Hindutva and development.
But as the results show, the BJP made solid inroads in the 27 seats reserved for Adivasis. It won 24 of them as against only nine in 2017. Similarly, the BJP also managed to win Ahmedabad’s Dariapur – which has a 65% Muslim population – for the first time. The seat is considered to be a Congress bastion.
The Thakor community, which had been traditional supporters of the Congress, also appear to have shifted to a great extent towards the BJP, while Dalit voters seem to have preferred AAP in many places. The only two exceptions to this trend are victories registered by Jignesh Mevani from Vadgam and Anant Patel from Bansda. Mevani has been a strong ideological critic of the BJP, while the Adivasi leader Anant Patel led a strong social movement against Par-Tapi-Narmada river linking project that would have displace thousands of Adivasis from their villages.
Clearly, the Congress’s social engineering formula – in the absence of a cohesive vision and ideology to offer to the voters – failed miserably. Many high-profile AAP leaders like its chief ministerial candidate Isudan Gadhvi, its state president Gopal Italia, or Surat-based Alpesh Kathiriya lost but still managed to finish as a close second to the BJP in their respective seats. AAP beat the Congress to the second place in as many as 36 seats.
Hindutva proved to be stronger than Mandal-based social justice politics in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Gujarat has only cemented its dominance over any other conventional strategy followed by opposition parties.
The Congress’s lack of state-wide leadership and AAP’s negligible organisational strength made things easier for the saffron party. The grand old party’s failure to shape new state-level leadership proved to be too costly. In contrast, the influence of six-time chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s family contributed heavily to the party’s victory in Himachal Pradesh.
3) BJP will push ahead with polarisation
Given that the unprecedented win comes in the context of several hate remarks against Muslims by leaders as tall as Amit Shah, it will embolden the BJP even further to carry out its Hindu-Muslim polarisation strategy ahead of the 2024 Parliamentary elections. Over the last eight years, Modi’s BJP has gradually been shifting from its development plank towards a cocktail of Hindutva and nationalist pride across India. Such a move, however gradual it may have been, has strengthened the hands of Hindu extremists all over.
From MPs like Parvesh Verma – who had called for an economic boycott of Muslims – to fringe elements like Yati Narsighanand, the footsoldiers of Hindutva at all levels have indulged in hate campaigns to rise up the BJP’s ladder. The Gujarat victory, coming as it did in the context of an open anti-Muslim campaign, will fuel majoritarian aggression even further.
4) Voters prefer boldness
The results are also an indication that voters are more inclined to vote for a party that comes across as bold and hard-hitting irrespective of ideology. AAP’s appeal and subsequent growth lay in its shrill and energetic campaign, while Congress’s “silent” and lacklustre canvassing got the boot. The BJP, the boldest of them all – both in terms of campaign and action, came out on top. The party’s vote share grew by nearly 5%, finishing at almost 54% of the total votes polled. The results reassert the assumption that the opposition may not be able to trump the BJP until it breaks the saffron party’s committed voters. In Gujarat, the opposition will have to make inroads into the urban population, who make up nearly 46% of the total population, and a majority of whom are in the tight grip of the saffron party.
For the BJP, however, the victory in Gujarat is a moment to savour. But it also will reflect on what went wrong in Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. Given its thirst for power and its ideological commitment, it is most likely to take up these issues seriously. However, the big question of whether the opposition can rise up to the mighty saffron challenge as a credible contender ahead of 2024 general elections is anybody’s guess.