How you see the Gujarat Assembly election results depends on where you stand on the PM Narendra Modi Appreciation Spectrum.
For many who see him as a moderniser, reformer and a man uniquely placed to transform the India story, the elections have been a singular triumph, battling 22 years of anti-incumbency, three young leaders representing various facets of Gujarat’s disenchantment, the fallout of two extremely tough economic decisions and the complete absence of credible local leadership.
The BJP has bettered its vote percentage in the 2012 Assembly elections (48.3 to 49.1) even though it translated to fewer seats (99 out of a 182-seat assembly compared to 115 five years ago).
For those who are not admirers, the results are proof of a decline in his popularity because he got fewer seats than last time in spite of being prime minister, a rejection of the much-praised Gujarat model of development, and a thumbs down to an often acrimonious and vicious election campaign.
India Today cover story, Wins, Worries, Warnings, for January 1, 2018.
The truth lies somewhere in between. There is no doubt that Prime Minister Modi is still the solitary hope for a vast multitude for his personal work ethic, his call for a cleaner public life and his increasing ability to push through difficult, but necessary reforms. It is also true that the results have put the spotlight on some trends that should worry his party and its never-say-die president Amit Shah. It is clear that rural distress took a huge toll on the BJP seats. The elections exposed a vast urban-rural divide and provided some lessons for the parties. Out of 127 rural seats, the BJP suffered a loss of 14 seats compared to the last Assembly poll to bring its tally to 56, while the Congress gained 17 seats, giving it a total of 68. In the urban areas which have a total of 55 seats, the BJP retained its dominance by losing only two seats with a tally of 43 while the Congress gained the same number to bring its total to a measly 12. This is a clear sign of rural distress and of urban Gujarat still believing in the Modi model of development.
The results also serve as a warning for the eight Assembly elections in 2018 - with the defeat of as many as six state ministers, it is evident that Prime Minister Modi is the BJP’s sole vote-getter, and chief campaigner as well as its tallest leader. Tireless as he seems (he held 34 rallies in Gujarat within a fortnight), he cannot always be a substitute for regional leadership.
Most importantly, and perhaps worryingly, for the BJP, which has often declared that it wants a “Congress-mukt Bharat”, the principal opposition party’s performance has shown that it still has some fight left in it. There is now a chink in the formidable election armour of the BJP.
Now that the Congress party has weathered the crippling defeat of 2014, and elected a new president, it is evolving a new style of leadership. Its strategy for the Gujarat Assembly elections was to fight in collaboration with three young local leaders representing Patels, Dalits and OBCs. It also unveiled two rather regressive elements in its campaign - the use of "soft-Hindutva" and the promise of caste-based reservation. That apart, Rahul Gandhi showed greater commitment to his vocation than he has in the last 13 years of his political life - a more inclusive style of leadership, taking along veterans such as Ashok Gehlot, and a bottom-up, inside-out strategy of candidate selection.
For both sides, though, the elections are a wake-up call. Prime Minister Modi has shown that he is not invulnerable, and that his charisma can have diminishing returns. In the end, it is the ground realities that matter to the electorate. Rahul Gandhi has managed to salvage his credibility somewhat, but has yet to prove that he can make the difference between just losing well and actually winning. Besides, beyond criticising the incumbent, he is yet to articulate substantially what his party stands for.
Both have to realise that every state election is unique and has its own local dynamic. The campaign narrative has to reflect that. Whether at the state or the national level, the Indian voter can never be taken for granted. Many politicians have forgotten that to their peril.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Wins, Worries, Warnings; January 1, 2018.)