Why Gujarat election results should worry Modi and Amit Shah

The polls were fascinating because it has served two national parties a glass half empty and a glass half full.

 |  7-minute read |   20-12-2017
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Indian elections are always a finely delivered lesson in democracy. But even by its usual high standards of delivering complex messages, the election in Gujarat was a master class. 

The BJP has been winning Gujarat for 22 years. On December 18, despite double incumbency in state and Centre, it won it again for a sixth term, a remarkable and almost unparalleled phenomenon except in West Bengal. Even the harshest critics of the party would need to salute that. But barely three years after sending its most prized and towering leader to Delhi as prime minister, Gujarat has also sounded a warning bell. 

The BJP needed 92 seats in the 182 assembly to form government. Despite emotional invocations and carpet bomb rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it won only 99 - 16 down from its earlier tally, 51 short of its confidently professed "Mission 150" and tantalisingly one short of the psychological victory of a 100. The Gujarat verdict, therefore, definitely seems to be a brake on hubris. More potent because it’s been delivered from the prime minister’s own citadel. 

In other ways too, the verdict makes for interesting reading. Over the next few days, vote shares and margins of victory and defeat in each seat will throw up many more nuanced insights, but up front, there are already some clear and strong takeaways. 

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First, whatever be the spin on it, the sound-proof consensus around the “Gujarat model of growth” finally seems to have been pierced. Saurashtra - 73 per cent rural, a Patidar bastion and traditional stronghold of the BJP - has spoken up loudly. The Gujarat model is not delivering to the farmer. Gujarat has claimed double digit agrarian growth for years, but that has not translated into wellbeing for the farmer plagued by high input costs, low prices, crushing loans, unsustainable incomes and absence of insurance against the vagaries of nature. The farmer refuses to lie low any longer. "Sabka saath, sabka vikas" does not ring true to him.

Interestingly too, while Gujarat under Modi was hailed for its focus on infrastructure, industry and urban growth, it used to be impossible to draw attention to the fact that Gujarat ranked alarmingly low on crucial human and social indices. It seems more than a telling coincidence, therefore, that in this election six sitting BJP ministers lost their seats: the portfolios they represented were agriculture, social justice, water, tribal affairs and women and child development. It might be a small detail, but for those who are listening, it says a lot.

But none of the messaging from Gujarat is simple. If the signal from Saurashtra seemed a massive thumbs-up for the politics of Hardik Patel, the Patidars of Surat - which had seemed an epicentre of the Patidar protests - have demonstrated the community is not voting en bloc merely on identity. Their primary anger was against the ill-worked out provisions of the GST. Modi’s last-minute amendments seems to have successfully mitigated that. The trader, therefore, has not made common cause with the farmer. The urban-rural fault line trumped over caste. There are many other signals of aspiration and resentment the Gujarat electorate have sent. But the election is also significant for several other reasons.

Combined with the decisive victory in Himachal Pradesh, the Gujarat verdict is proof that the Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut is still pretty unstoppable. It’s also proof that the development vision articulated by Modi still has a lot of believers and buyers. All of that is highly commendable. What’s disturbing is that beneath the governance rhetoric - contested as it might be - the twin impulse for a divisive Hindutva agenda lurks barely concealed. It reared its head in the Uttar Pradesh elections. In Gujarat, it was on ugly display again. In the last phase of the election, it wasn’t just the rank and file of the BJP who spoke of staving off “dadhi-topi” men, it was the BJP top brass - including the prime minister - who referenced “Khilji ki aulad” and spun wild conspiracies about Pakistan, the Taliban and the Congress dancing in tango, turning innocuous diplomatic dinner parties into issues of grave national danger and conflating the Indian Muslim with citizens of other countries. Statesmanship, clearly, is going to be only a seasonal stance for the BJP. When in stress, press Plan B: the politics of hate. 

On the other end of the spectrum, the Gujarat election also saw the birth of a new Rahul Gandhi, and the possibility, finally, of a robust, vitalised Opposition on the national stage - a fundamental need in a democratic polity. That too, however, came with its own complex set of messages.

On the one hand, Rahul demonstrated a political energy, confidence and ease not visible before. His tweets have been humorous, his counter-offence to the BJP courteous, and he was prompt to sack Mani Shankar Aiyar for the misguided use of the word “neech” in reference to the prime minister (manipulated and overplayed as it may have been into a caste slur it never was). From being jeered as a “Pappu” barely a few months earlier, he seemed transformed into a genuine adversary of Modi. Combined with the political energy of the young triumvirate - Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani, and Alpesh Thakor - the Congress under him visibly took the battle into the heart of the BJP’s lair. 

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In all fairness, for them, at 80 seats, the Gujarat election can be summed up in one line: the BJP won, but the Congress did not lose.

However, they can hardly breathe easy on that. The Congress and Rahul need to square with the fact that if they had started working earlier, they may have stood to win Gujarat. They also need to square with the fact that the alliance they cobbled with the triumvirate is not a coherent and sustainable one: it was a partnership cemented by a common opposition not a common vision. It certainly channelised disenchantment - an important function of politics - but sample just one imponderable they would have hit had they formed the government: how would Congress have fulfilled its promise of providing reservation for Patidars - Hardik Patel’s core motive - and yet pacified Alpesh, whose core OBC constituency would be hit by such a concession?

If Rahul is to sustain the political capital he has earned, he and the Congress need to come up with a genuinely alternative political narrative. What is the idea of India he will stand for? Arguably, it is important for the Congress to reclaim Hindu space, wrest it away from the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, and invoke its more joyously liberal, plural, and humanist face - one not constructed merely as an avenging force against fellow Muslims. However, merely visiting temples and foregrounding his Hindu identity can be a very slippery slope. How will he prevent Congress from seeming the B-team of Hindutva? Can he come up with a compelling new political language that does not alienate?

Secularism itself needs a deft re-articulation. For decades, the Congress had held the Muslim community hostage to its most regressive elements in the guise of serving the community. Can he revise that relationship into a more positive, confident  and inclusive one which mainstreams Muslim needs and aspirations as ordinary first-class citizens of the country, or is he set to abandon the community altogether?    

Finally, there is the economy. Democracy needs intelligent criticism. But criticism is not enough. If citizens are expected to transfer their vote, they need to know why "B", and not "A".

What will the Congress stand for that is not the BJP? How will they speak to both the rich and the poor; the young and the old; the trader, the farmer and the entrepreneur? How will they serve both social justice and teeming aspiration? How will they transform the economy? 

The Gujarat election of 2017 is particularly fascinating because it has presented two national parties with a glass half full, and a glass half empty.  

The ordinary Indian would love to know who’s going to top it up first. 

Also read: How BJP won a losing battle in Gujarat

Writer

Shoma Chaudhury Shoma Chaudhury @shomachaudhury

Journalist, editor, co-founder & director, Algebra - the arts and ideas club

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