If Gujarat exemplifies the current invincibility of the BJP with almost double the vote share of its nearest rival in the state, Himachal Pradesh too brings into sharp focus the difficulties in displacing the BJP — Congress and BJP are practically tied there in terms of vote share. Both assembly outcomes alert us to the fact that the second dominant party system that emerged in 2014 is not showing any signs of decline. In a system dominated by one party, expectations of the Opposition often hinge on the ultimate possibility of voter fatigue if not voter response to genuine economic woes. Such expectations tend to ignore the capacity of the dominant party to keep the voters hooked to its rhetoric and leadership.
In the latest round of assembly elections, the two results go in two different directions. Therefore, critics of the BJP are likely to exaggerate the example of Himachal Pradesh and refuse to learn from the Gujarat results. While it would be misleading to read too much in the outcome in Himachal, the greater mistake will be to not understand the Gujarat outcome for its real message.
In terms of electoral history, today’s Gujarat can be compared to West Bengal when the Left Front government kept winning assembly elections one after the other. But the key difference is that the Left Front was a state-specific phenomenon and had only a very limited role, occasionally, at the all-India level. In contrast, the BJP aims at expanding its influence all over the country and the party is already into its second term nationally.
It is true that the details of the shaping of its dominance in each state vary and the BJP does not blindly seek to replicate the Gujarat model of politics. But despite these variations, and while there is no single template, the tale of captivating the electorate and transforming the way voters respond to issues is the same almost everywhere. Thus, in its massive victory in Gujarat are hidden serious implications not just for party competition but also for India’s political culture.
But let us first address the question whether the structure of competition mattered in Gujarat and how far it counts in the present moment of Indian politics. For all these years when the BJP has been in power there, in terms of electoral competition, Gujarat has been a bipolar state. This time, the AAP made a voluble pitch for breaking this bipolarity and if one looks at the vote shares, it has indeed breached it, causing serious damage to Congress. However, it should be admitted that the BJP’s dominance goes far beyond the structure of competition: Whether bipolar or triangular, the BJP has its deep-rooted base that assures it electoral supremacy in the state. The entry of the AAP may explain the debacle faced by Congress but it does not account for the impressive performance of the BJP. What the AAP did was to underscore the limitations of Congress as the BJP’s challenger and thus ensure that the BJP victory would look bigger. It is another matter that this ambition of the AAP to displace Congress dovetails nicely with the BJP’s ambition of making India Congress-mukt. In the process, politics in Gujarat and indeed, increasingly, politics of the country, moves towards being “Opposition-mukt”.
It may be argued that while Congress suffers one setback after another, in a large number of states there are state-level parties that will wage the battle against the BJP and these parties are in fact the real thorn in its flesh. While this is true at the surface level, many of the state parties are vulnerable to central interventions and attacks from the BJP or are amenable to buying peace with the dominant party. In state after state, the BJP is set on decimating state-level parties, although at the moment major states in the south and east are ruled by these parties. The ponderable question is whether the co-existence of the BJP at the Centre and non-BJP parties in states puts brakes on the BJP’s narrative.
The larger challenge the Gujarat model of an Opposition-mukt polity poses is probably the one least discussed or addressed. While in Gujarat the BJP has posted a clean sweep with more than half the electorate voting for it, as the Lokniti-CSDS reports have shown earlier in the case of MP and more recently for Delhi too, even among voters of non-BJP parties in an assembly election, there is often a marked preference for the BJP (and for Modi) at the all-India level. This fact emphasises the need to link state-level battles to all-India competition and to cultivate a truly non-BJP constituency beyond state-level concerns and affinities.
This inclination toward the BJP and Modi should force any casual observer of politics to give attention to a factor beyond the structure of political competition. What the BJP has done in Gujarat is to capture the entire gamut of public discourse and political culture. As a result, any potential challenger to the BJP there will either have to display extra-ordinary political skills to alter the ground on which political contestation unfolds or simply agree to play the game by the rules of rhetoric set by the BJP. In the past two assembly elections, Congress failed when tried to adopt a different rhetoric. This time both AAP and Congress chose to compete without contesting ideas and yet they failed. That is what the Gujarat model of new politics represents.
Three instances in this Gujarat election — two utterances and one eloquent non-utterance — are characteristic of the BJP’s new model of Opposition-mukt democracy. One, the chilling claim by the country’s home minister that 2002 symbolised a strict lesson. Two, a populist remark by an actor-turned-politician that economic problems will come and go, but the BJP is important because it will protect the voters’ local sentiments against fish-eating Bengalis. Three, the manner in which the prime minister went on waving to the crowd when he walked toward the polling booth to cast his vote.
The first represents the Hindu state that the BJP has de facto brought into being; the second represents the parochial and exclusionary version of political culture the BJP popularises under its spurious nationalism and the third represents the deinstitutionalised and leader-centric idea that is set to replace the principle of constitutional democracy. Ironically, we as a society are becoming cheer leaders of these traits while the non-BJP parties continue to feign ignorance about these factors implicit in the BJP’s model of an Opposition-mukt polity.
The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics