The BJP’s thumping majority in Gujarat makes it clear that Narendra Modi is set to be the favourite to sweep the state in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Even though Modi left Gujarat when he became Prime Minister, he continues to exercise his sway on the state through proxies. And, it is Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that helped the BJP and almost eliminated the Congress in Gujarat.
The Gujarat Assembly is almost Congress-mukt and there will likely be an exodus of Congress members to the BJP. They will then accept PM Modi’s “vikas” formula.
That PM Modi’s BJP has retained Gujarat is not so surprising. But the margin of the victory – the BJP has established a new record in the state assembly, surpassing the Congress’s 141 seats under Madhavsinh Solanki in 1980 which increased to 149 seats in 1985 – is stupendous. The Congress too has created a record – it is unlikely to match its lowest tally of 33 seats in 1990. Except for Arjun Modhwadia, former Gujarat Congress President, the top party’s top leaders in the state including the Leaders of Opposition in the Assembly Paresh Dhanani and Sukhram Rathwa, lost the election.
The AAP was claiming it would form the government a day before the counting, but most of its leaders, including the chief ministerial hopeful Isudan Gadhvi, failed to win their seats.
Modi and the BJP left no stone unturned in this election. The sparse attendance at BJP leaders’ election meetings and the AAP’s aggressive campaign claiming it would form the government didn’t work. What worked are the iconic leadership and aggressive election campaign of Modi. The “Hindu card” has been paying dividends for the BJP since 1995, when the party first came to power on its own in the state. Gujarat is now heading towards one-party rule as the opposition is almost nullified. The criticism that the party has won fewer seats in every election since 2002 also stands defeated.
The Congress leadership was never united and did not perform the role of an effective Opposition. However, one must give credit to Jagdish Thakor, the president of the Gujarat Congress, who campaigned vigorously. Raghu Sharma, a former minister in the Gehlot Ministry and prabhari of the Gujarat Congress, proved an ineffective coordinator for the Congress factions in Gujarat. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s model, where he was “super prabhari”, didn’t work in Gujarat. The infighting between Gehlot and Sachin Pilot, once his deputy, as well as the open rebellious behaviour of the Rajasthan Congress MLAs loyal to Gehlot also affected the efforts towards creating a coordinated strategy to fight the Gujarat polls this time, unlike in 2017.
And while the BJP always plans for the elections well in advance, the Congress woke up at the last moment.
There are many reasons for Congress’s poor showing. The party missed the bus when it did not take a timely decision about Naresh Patel, among the most influential and acceptable leaders of the Patel community. An industrialist from Saurashtra with global business connections, Patel was leaning towards Congress. He met top leaders including Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Ashok Gehlot. Initially, he did not ask them to project him as the chief ministerial face. But that was certainly his aspiration He also insisted on two persons joining his team – poll strategist Prashant Kishor and Shankarsinh Vaghela, the former chief minister who ditched Congress at a crucial time in December 2017. The Congress’s high command was not prepared to accept these two persons. Hence, Naresh Patel put his desire to join active politics into cold storage “for the time being”.
PM Modi grabbed the opportunity. He managed to have a meeting with Naresh Patel along with another industrialist Ramesh Tilala. The meeting gave a signal to the Patel community. Tilala won the election and Modi had an upper hand. Congress missed the bus.
The writer is a veteran journalist based in Gujarat