The elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh continue to cement the BJP’s political dominance. Narendra Modi can take heart from the fact that the personal identification of voters with him still endures. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that in election after election he imperiously emerges victorious, brushing aside all analytical pedantry, moral criticism and social disaffection. With the voters, he still carries unmatched credibility. Despite palpable discontent, anti-incumbency, new social fault lines, and an uneven campaign, Gujarat voters were still not prepared to abandon him.
The question is going to be whether this degree of identification with the BJP is peculiar to Gujarat, or can be replicated in other states. The BJP’s ability to increase its vote share over 2012 is a triumph of sorts. The Congress will be disappointed it did not do better. It can argue that it at least demonstrated it has still got some fight left in it. But at the end of the day, this was not the triumphal moment that Rahul Gandhi would have hoped for. Far from it. He is still in the game, but the climb is going to be no less steep than it was before the election.
A few trends are clear. There was substantial rural discontent, but rural discontent alone will not be able to create a crescendo large enough to unseat the BJP. Its urban base held intact and propelled it to power. Rural discontent might be enough to create an opportunity for the opposition in states like Madhya Pradesh. But nationally, if the Congress is to compete, it will have to create an insurgent narrative around both urban and rural discontent. If the BJP holds onto urban India, it can muster enough of rural India to push it over the line. In Gujarat, urban India seems to have solidly remained behind the BJP.
Second, the alignment of caste cleavages and party identification is weakening. Caste does matter in terms of social identity. But when caste votes are quite substantially spread over different political parties, and are, in principle, available to any one of the parties, it is not clear what analytical value caste arithmetic still has in Indian politics. So, excessive reliance on caste coalitions of the kind we used to see in the Eighties, is a political strategy with severe limitations.
The symbolic incorporation of the Patels into a reservation scheme of doubtful constitutional validity and uncertain economic impact is not a strategy to address their discontents. In fact, it might have unwittingly suggested a return to the past. The BJP does intelligent caste politics, but it frames it in an ideology and framework of rising above caste.
What Modi still offers, with all the problems, is a number of cross-cutting themes, around hopes for the future, doing away with corruption, intermediaries from power structures etc. Many of these claims might be hollow, but they are still a surprising locus of hope for large numbers of voters. He turns his audacious recklessness into a mark of his sincerity. The Congress still suffers from the loss of credibility that its own recent past has generated on issues like corruption. It needs a narrative that can infuse a positive energy into its programme, rather than hoping to capitalise only on a narrative of discontent. The BJP has a lot to answer for, but it will be wishful thinking to suppose that it will act so catastrophically incompetently on the economy that a crescendo of opposition is inevitable.
Third, the Congress is suffering from the lack of a party structure at the state level. It did admirably well in the last three months of the campaign, but the standard deficits of the Congress are still in play. It relied on social outsiders like Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani to electrify discontent. To a certain extent, Hardik Patel did that; and the issue Mevani raised will have a long shelf life in politics. But relying on outside insurgent social forces alone is a double-edged sword. Social movements rarely translate into potent political forces unless they clearly align with not just the agenda, but also the structures of the political party. The leaders of the party must be seen to be in control of these forces, rather than at their mercy. Some of that may have happened in Gujarat at the expense of the Congress.
Fourth, the BJP in Gujarat may be peculiar in this respect, but all successful political parties over the long run manage to, to some degree, fuse civil society and party. This was true even of the Congress in the heyday of its hegemony. In Gujarat, the BJP’s penetration of civil society is deep, so even when people are clear-eyed about its failings, voting against it feels like a form of betrayal. Gujarat is a little atypical in this respect. But it does point to the fact that electoral gains are consolidated when the sensibility of a particular party also becomes the default common sense of civil society. But the BJP has been playing that game very seriously for a while now.
Modi’s triumph and his gifts as a politician cannot be denied. But equally, it cannot be denied that Indian democracy is poised at a moment fraught with danger. Democracy, by its very nature, is more secure with the right fragmentation of power and an effective opposition. Has Gujarat done enough to kindle people’s hopes that an effective opposition might be possible? If not, there is a danger that political opposition to the government, rather than being expressed through settled channels of party politics, begins to take the form of social pathology. Elections are our safety valves, but their efficacy turns on groups not feeling permanently marginalised or unrepresented. It also has to be said that Modi is continuing, in different ways, to turn a blind eye to, if not proactively institutionalising, a vicious communalism that is now stoking all kinds of low level fires across the country.
Whether this triumph will embolden the party further is an open question. But if recent history is any guide, the Hindutva agenda will get emboldened — a political triumph will leave an ugly trail in its wake. But the Congress will have to introspect why, despite these risks, despite the BJP’s economic blunders, and despite a new commitment by Rahul Gandhi, the voters are not yet willing to trust it and forgive its past transgressions. It has to double down.