The voters of Gujarat have spoken. Their verdict will be known on 18 December. However, the exit pollsters have already spoken. And they have spoken almost in unison, unlike in many previous elections, Vidhan Sabha or Lok Sabha.
If what they have said is anywhere close to the verdict of Gujarat’s electorate, the Bharatiya Janata Party will romp home to victory for the sixth consecutive time – that too with a tally in the vicinity of the impressive number of seats it had won in the 2012 assembly elections. The Congress, too, will remain more or less where it was five years ago ─ that is, its MLAs could number about half of the BJP’s.
Exit polls have gone wrong, sometimes horribly wrong, in the past. They might miss the mark again. But assuming they are right this time, one has to speculatively examine the reasons for the BJP’s victory and the Congress’ defeat.
If the BJP Wins, Credit Must Go to Modi
A few obvious questions demand answers. Has the much-discussed anti-incumbency factor – the BJP has been in power in Gujarat without a break since 1995 – failed to sway the voters? Was the reported dissatisfaction due to economic slowdown caused by GST and demonetisation exaggerated? Didn’t the visible discontent among Patidars, as could be seen from the huge size of Hardik Patel’s rallies, dent the community’s support for the BJP?
And, most important from the perspective of national politics, did Rahul Gandhi, who was elected Congress president during the course of the election campaign itself, fail to brighten the prospects of his party’s candidates despite his strenuous efforts?
If the BJP does win again with a tally in the region of 110 seats (out of a total of 182 seats in the Assembly), the lion’s share of the credit has to go to its star and sole campaigner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Undoubtedly, the BJP carried a heavy burden of anti-incumbency. The party was in considerable disarray after Modi, who was Gujarat’s chief minister from 2002 to 2014, left the state for New Delhi. His handpicked successor, Anandiben Patel, made an inglorious exit in August 2016. Her successor Vijay Rupani held the government together, but was not known to be a leader in his own right.
Administration had lost its dynamism and clear focus, which were the hallmark of Modi’s years in Gandhinagar. Corruption had become rampant. Hardik Patel’s agitation for reservation for Patidars had alienated a major traditional support base from the BJP.
Modi’s Means Were Questionable
If the final verdict shows that these factors failed to harm the BJP, the reason will have to be found in Modi’s continued hold on a large section of Gujarat’s voters. Even though many Gujaratis had started to criticise Modi – and this was a new phenomenon in the state – what seems to have worked in the BJP’s favour is the fact that India now has a Gujarati PM.
The party had projected this to be a matter of Gujarati pride. Modi himself brazenly deflected the Opposition’s barbs against him by describing them as insults to Gujarat and Gujarati people. Thus, Mani Shankar Aiyar’s deplorable remark about Modi being a “neech kism ka insaan” (low-level person) became, in the PM’s deliberate and self-serving misinterpretation, a person belonging to “neech jaati” (low caste).
Modi’s campaign speeches were replete with attempts to discredit the Congress as an “anti-Gujarat” party, and, especially, the Nehru-Gandhi family, as an enemy of Gujaratis.
Thus, he perhaps made a sufficiently large number of voters believe that the interests of Gujarat would be better protected by having “our own man” at the helm in New Delhi and a person of his choice to head the state government. It is worth remembering here that the Congress did not have a strong leader, with statewide appeal cutting across caste lines, to challenge the BJP.
Add to this Modi’s well-calculated move to polarise the electorate by subtly inciting anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments, what one gets is a successful, if highly questionable, formula to overcome the anti-incumbency and other negative factors.
Modi’s much-trumpeted ‘Gujarat model’ always had these polarising elements. But what was evident in this election is how he relatively marginalised development-related issues, which constituted the other side of the ‘Gujarat model’.
If the BJP’s tally does end up being as high as the exit-pollsters have presented them to be, it would appear that Modi’s and his storm-troopers’ subtle and not-so-subtle appeal to “Hindu pride” and “Gujarati pride” has succeeded in reducing Hardik Patel’s influence on his community.
Whereas young Patidars may have followed his anti-BJP line, the BJP has perhaps retained the support of those belonging to the older generation.
What must have also heavily worked to the BJP’s advantage is its strong and statewide organisational structure. Over the years, the BJP, assisted by other sister organisations in the Sangh Parivar, has perfected its booth-level management mechanism by building dedicated grassroots cadres who are well-connected with the voters at the local level. This highly useful voter mobilisation system is missing with the Congress.
Rahul Can Turn Defeat Into a Stepping Stone for Future Success
Lastly, if the news on 18 December proves the exit-pollsters right, there will surely be many questions about Rahul Gandhi’s ability to win elections. Defeat in Gujarat will no doubt force, and should force, a process of introspection in the Congress, but it will not be over the party’s decision to elect Rahul as its new president.
This is because even the critics of the Congress party have noticed that Rahul is a new kind of leader now. Confident, articulate, youthful, sober, genuine-sounding, hard-working, able to establish an emotional connect with the masses, and a leader who combines humility and simplicity – these qualities were in full display during the 3-4 months of his continuous campaigning in Gujarat.
He has also spiritedly countered the BJP’s claim to be the sole guardian of Hindu culture, without diluting the Congress party’s commitment to secularism.
Modi may win Gujarat, but Rahul has won the admiration of many by coming across as a leader who cares more for democratic and constitutional values than the prime minister.
Therefore, irrespective of whether the Congress loses or wins, India has seen in Rahul Gandhi the emergence of a new leader with a lot of promise. If the Congress loses yet again in Gujarat, it will only mean that both Rahul and his party have to continue to strive devotedly to win the hearts and minds of Indians, especially the youth.
In any case, Rahul should not go after quick wins and a short-cut to power. It will do him and his party a lot of good in the long term if he focuses on removing the rot that has set in the Congress. The party organisation is in need of revitalisation at all levels, most importantly at the booth level by having committed workers who serve the people at all times and in all their needs.
Beyond criticising the BJP, as he did in Gujarat, he also has to present a new vision and practical as well as new solutions to the myriad problems confronting the nation. He hasn’t done this so far. If he does so, and if the Congress does taste defeat in Gujarat, he can make the defeat become a stepping stone for future success. The more he struggles, the better it is for him, for his party, and for India.
(The views expressed in the article are the writer’s own and The Quint does not endorse them. The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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