In the aftermath of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly poll results, the voters have given a thumbs up to the BJP. Gujarat has been retained for a sixth consecutive time and Himachal Pradesh will also have a BJP government after an emphatic win at the hustings.
However, in defeat, are there signs of a blueprint for a strong Opposition response to the BJP, emerging from Gandhinagar?
The opposition Congress party was in the fray, fighting a 26 per cent deficit in vote share with the ruling party — the last major election stand-off between the two parties in 2014, had seen the BJP win more than 60 per cent of the vote share. The BJP appeared firmly ensconced in the driving seat.
In this election that gap has narrowed, both in terms of seats and in terms of vote shares. The gap in vote share is now 7 per cent and the gap in seats is approximately 20 seats. And although the BJP spoke of ‘Mission 150’ in Gujarat, anything more than the 115 seats they had won in 2012, would have signaled a good victory. That they didn’t manage that magic figure might mute their victory celebrations.
On the other hand, the Congress, till a few months ago, was smarting under a dismal UP result, when despite the bold alliance with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, it was vanquished decisively. So it was as a much-maligned, ridiculed and ragtag party that the party went into the Gujarat campaign.
However, the panache and the consistency with which it attacked the BJP, on its home turf and in the lion’s den, caught everyone by surprise.
Since 1995, Gujarat has been seen as a ‘Hindutva laboratory’. In this post-liberalisation era, the BJP was considered to be the natural ruler of a rapidly urbanising neo-Hindu state, and Gujarat the forerunner of how India would eventually be won by the party.
In the Gujarat electoral campaign, the Congress was able to address a new leadership that had emerged within the state, each one with their own set of grievances against BJP rule. In this inclusive model, it was able to bring together under one umbrella leaders like Jignesh Mevani, Alpesh Thakor and Hardik Patel – each with his own different political compact. By doing so, it stretched the boundaries of what constituted a political arrangement and was able to present itself as a viable Opposition.
This was an important election. During the Bihar experiment, the Janata Dal, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress combined for a successful alliance in 2015. But after the Mahagatbanhan blew up, a key message of CM Nitish Kumar, briefly a darling of the ‘secular camp’, was that the Congress wasn’t a viable electoral option. However, the convincing electoral wins notched by the Congress and young leaders who joined forces with it, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat, suggest that the Congress has regained something of its image as a party that can successfully oppose the BJP and give it a run for its money. This should worry the BJP.
Central to the BJP spin-doctors being sanguine about 2019, is the promise of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’—the latter is now in power in just four states, a good measure of the BJP’s ascendency. However, the flexibility of the Congress to act as the pole or the magnet which can attract different shades of dissent against the BJP, offers the ruling party a challenge in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The decline in number of seats won in Gujarat by the BJP, despite the aggressive campaign of a popular PM, a Gujarati and a son of the soil president in Amit Shah, is another cause of concern for it.
And the Congress can take some comfort from the kind of campaign the BJP was forced to mount by the end.
Gujarat was special in that it propagated the myth of a BJP which would turn India into Gujarat, in 2014. Video-rath after rath was wheeled around India offering the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ – super highways, infrastructure and a glittering urban dream.
However, during this campaign, the BJP offered a different kind of `Gujarat model campaign’, one in which the dark shadows of the communal Hindu-Muslim divide in various shapes and sizes became the central point of the PM’s speeches, especially in the latter half of his rallies.
Thus the election has lessons to offer: the Congress admitted its underdog status and worked its way up from there, welcoming all strains of Opposition into its fold. Its relentless and no-holds barred campaigning forced the BJP at several times to react and change its narrative. By the end of the campaign, the BJP brought in a seaplane to support its chances and the PM went to the extent of accusing his predecessor of treason.
The Congress ability to win approximately 80 seats out of 182 without employing either stratagems, suggests a way forward for the grand old party.