In victory, BJP smells defeat, while Congress tastes an opportunity

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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi managed to barely hold on to his home state of Gujarat despite a vigorous election campaign. Photo: Reuters / Amit Dave

Rahul Gandhi has lost, but not really. Narendra Modi has won, but not really. In a nutshell, that is what the Gujarat election verdict was all about. The Bharatiya Janata Party on Monday huffed and puffed its way to a difficult victory in Prime Minister Modi’s home state of Gujarat in an election where his policies during his three years as Prime Minister and 12 years in the State took center stage.

As results trickled in, the BJP was struggling with 99 seats ahead of the main opposition Congress Party, which was leading in 83 constituencies. This is only a shade better than a simple majority of 92 in a State Assembly of 182 seats.

Just 48 hours ago, all exit polls had predicted a massive victory for the ruling BJP. But the results left Congress tantalizingly close to victory. The BJP had set a dream target of Mission 150. But their hopes of dominance were dashed as the day unfolded.

A narrow victory

The story of the day was not about the BJP’s sixth consecutive term since 1995, but about a revived Congress coming so close to victory. This was evident during the campaign forcing the Prime Minister to junk a “development” platform and instead polarize the vote on sectarian lines.

The biggest consolation for the BJP in this victory was the monumental effort to ensure that Gandhi, the newly appointed President of the Congress party, didn’t get to walk away with a clear win in their tallest leader’s home state.  To add to the BJP’s woes and Congress’ advantage, there was 24-year-old Hardik Patel’s pitched two-year-old Patidar caste agitation seeking reservation in government jobs for his community. A similar move by Other Backward Caste (OBC) leader Alpesh Thakore and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, led to a rare and powerful alliance for the Congress. This is a unusual since Patidar, OBC and Dalit leaders have rarely come together in the past.

Under the name of caste assertion, the three, as well as Gandhi, tapped into the growing disenchantment over unemployment, expensive privatization of education, farmers revolting over the collapse of key crops, and the poor state of Gujarat’s fabled small-scale and medium scale industries. The demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax proved to be twin blows for voters in the rural and semi-urban areas, while the cities continued to firmly back Modi.

The overall vote share of the BJP nosedived from 60.11% in the 2014 general elections to 49%, in a state the party considers invincible. The Congress, on the other hand, clocked a share of 41.5% against 33.45% in 2014.

As vote counting started earlier, Congress briefly took the lead and sent stock markets plunging by 850 points. Although the BJP recovered, it barely passed the half-way mark of 92 seats required for a simple majority.

The major takeaway for the Congress was the victory in the Saurashtra and Kutch regions, where it picked up 15 seats more than the 2012  state elections to win 30 out of 54 seats, leaving one to BJP and another to a Nationalist Congress Party candidate.

All the issues of the influential Patidar community, the widespread anger among farmers, and effects of the ill-conceived demonetization and GST were more pronounced in this region than other parts of Gujarat. The Congress victory here also indicated that the BJP was losing its grip over the rural areas of Gujarat.

This fact coincides with the recent victory of the BJP in the elections to local self-government bodies in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where the ruling party won the majority of urban centers even as rural areas slipped away.

The major takeaway for the BJP is that it won in spite of the Modi Government’s record, which had become the major election issue for Congress. In response, Modi shrewdly played the “son of the soil” card, which probably helped ease the damage.

Modi converted every attack on his government’s policies as though it was a collective insult of the people of Gujarat, and asked voters, “Do you wish to tolerate an insult to your son of the soil? Can you tolerate it? Can you tolerate it if someone calls me a ‘neech’ (lowly) man? It is an insult of entire Gujarat.” It had the desired impact and the fence-sitters voted for him, if not for the party.

Congress could not convert the anger against the Modi Government at the national level, and by proxy, in Gujarat, mostly because it could not present a credible Chief Ministerial candidate. Had they done so, the results could have been different.

An energized Congress

Gandhi carried himself with uncanny dexterity during the campaign. He made the right noises at the right time and, for a change,  connected with the masses. However, he failed to counter Modi’s “Insider-versus-Outsider” strategy.

Modi’s BJP has every reason to celebrate this much-needed victory in the Prime Minister’s home state. A failure here could have meant a country-wide loss of face, even as three crucial states go to the polls next year.

For Congress, this is yet another loss in Gujarat as well as one more for Gandhi. The big consolation for Gandhi and his party is that for the first time they put the previously invincible Modi on the back-foot over his policies.

So one lost, but not really. Another won, but not really.

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