The BJP has registered a stunning win in the 2022 Gujarat elections. I use the word stunning because this is the seventh consecutive time the BJP has won the state and if we include the 1990 election, where BJP and Janata Dal fought in an alliance and swept the seats that they contested, the count goes up to eight. There have been many variables in the BJP’s success in Gujarat over the last three decades but one constant has been Narendra Modi. In different circumstances, adopting different methods he has strengthened the BJP, making it the force that it is now. I will broadly divide his efforts into two parts – overcoming the crisis of electability and overcoming the crisis of governability.
Let me explain the first point. In 1987, when Narendra Modi was sent to the BJP from the RSS, the morale of the party was at an all-time low. In two successive polls — 1980 and 1985 — the Congress had swept to office with 150 seats. The Lok Sabha polls of 1984 were also disappointing for the BJP. At such a time, the mood of the party cadre was at an all-time low and the organisation, despite having many bright leaders, was at risk of withering away. This is when Modi made his debut. The immediate task was the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation election. At the time, a Congress victory was a foregone conclusion. But it was the BJP which won and Modi played an anchoring role in this. He worked on candidate selection, giving importance to candidates with a clean image, professionals and old grass roots workers. He emphasised speaking about the party’s positive vision and at the same time, coming down heavily on the vote bank politics of the Congress. This led to rich dividends.
In the next few years, Modi devised the effective tools of yatras and mass contact programmes. In the late 1980s, Gujarat was suffering from a severe drought, which was made worse by the apathy of the state government. Modi devised a simple and effective method — a charter, in which BJP workers prepared a list of services people were entitled to. This made evident to the people the rampant corruption in the state over the years. In 1989, he came up with another unique idea — the Lok Shakti Yatra. This yatra was aimed at enhancing the image of Keshubhai Patel and giving him a pan-Gujarat image with successful impact. Thus, as the 1989 Lok Sabha elections approached, the BJP was no longer seen as non-electable and the party won the highest number of seats in Gujarat, ahead of the Congress and Janata Dal.
It was not only Modi’s actions but also his renunciation that helped the BJP. In the political crisis of 1995-1996, he was wrongly vilified and moved out of Gujarat. He did so, complying with the party directive even as other leaders broke the party and some even allied with the Congress.
My second point pertains to BJP’s ability to govern and deliver. The BJP did form the government in 1995 but it was plagued by factionalism. In 1998, when the BJP again got a clear mandate, the government did not leave much of a mark in terms of governance. Cyclone relief left a lot to be desired, the drought response was not great either and the 2001 earthquake relief measures were also inadequate. The BJP suffered electoral reverses in the local body polls in 2000 and the last straw was a defeat in the Sabarmati assembly, which was part of the Parliamentary seat of L K Advani, then deputy PM. It was increasingly clear that while the BJP was winning, its ability to deliver good governance was questionable.
October 7, 2001, changed that.
Right through his first 100 days in office, Modi showed what last mile governance ought to be. He was in Kutch ensuring timely relief, he spent Diwali with those affected, and was touring other parts of the state focusing on reforming the power and water sectors. As time passed, Gujarat was seen as a turnaround state of sorts — a place like Kutch, whose obituary had been written earlier, was reborn as a hub of development, a dry district like Banaskantha became known for agriculture, dairies opened in Saurashtra, urban infra boomed in Ahmedabad, Surat, Rajkot and Vadodara, power discoms were reformed, schools were opened in tribal areas and more. A state known for natural disasters was now drawing investments from the world. Modi fought every election on the agenda of vikas and the people of Gujarat reciprocated with affection.
The real success of a politician lies in the long-term institutional change he or she can bring into politics. Modi has institutionalised development as the fulcrum around which Gujarat politics revolves. Every discussion boils down to which party was better and seen as credible at delivery of governance. For all the criticism of individual centric politics, the BJP has won every election in Gujarat after Modi moved to Delhi. Yes, the prime attraction remains Modi but the BJP organisation is still very vibrant in Gujarat. Neither Congress nor AAP have been able to replicate this organisational strength. The BJP’s organisation has been consistently shaped, molded and solidified by Narendra Modi, making it a formidable force, hard to overcome. The personal connect and booth level associations have been key differentiators.
On balance, 2022 was a good year electorally for the BJP. But I am sure among all the wins, the win in Gujarat is a lot sweeter for the party and particularly for Narendra Modi.
The writer is former chairman of Prasar Bharati