“Param sukh”, or immense comfort, was how Prime Minister Narendra Modi had described his party’s chances in the Gujarat Assembly poll, at a Diwali get-together with journalists here on October 29. But, the Gujarat election campaign was anything but comfortable for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On Monday morning, as election results trickled in and the BJP inched towards the majority mark of 92 in the 182-member Assembly, the PM signalled a victory sign to television cameras and photographers as he entered Parliament to attend the winter session.
All eyes would now be on government formation in Gujarat — whether it reaches out to groups, particularly a section of the Patidars and Other Backward Classes. A comprehensive win in Gujarat would have added to the BJP’s image of invincibility. However, this win has raised more questions than it has answered.
And, the result shows the party’s heavy reliance on Modi, also for the next Lok Sabha election. The Congress and other regional parties are set to make that election, as well as the Assembly polls, between the PM and strong state satraps.
At 67, Modi led a gruelling blitzkrieg of public meetings — 34 public rallies and some road shows, including his famous ride on a seaplane on December 12. In hindsight, the PM’s entreaties that he was a son of the soil helped the party overcome significant disaffection and score a sixth successive win in Gujarat.
On the ground, the BJP battled intense anti-incumbency — due to farm distress; anger among traders over demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST); dissatisfaction over the so-called Gujarat model of development; lack of jobs for youth; emergence of caste leaders Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani, who challenged Modi and Shah the way state Congress leaders had seldom before, and a revitalised Congress under its new president, Rahul Gandhi.
In places like Saurashtra, epicentre of the Patidar movement, memories of deaths of 14 of their community boys in agitation were fresh. So was the “insult” meted to former chief minister Anandiben Patel. The anger against the leadership of Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, as well as his benefactor and party chief Amit Shah, was palpable.
A churn within the party might be unlikely. But its margdarkshak mandal
, or mentor group, might throw up inconvenient questions. It had raised inconvenient questions about the way Shah has run the party, after the party’s Bihar loss in November 2015.
The BJP president, meanwhile, took solace from the increase in vote share — 47.85 per cent in 2012 to 49 per cent. He said it was no “kaante ki takkar”, a photo finish, as the BJP lead the Congress was almost eight per cent in vote share. Shah blamed the “low level” and “casteist” discourse of the Congress for the lower BJP tally. The Congress manifesto made promises worth Rs 1,20,000 crore when Gujarat’s annual revenue was around Rs 70,000 crore. The BJP chief said the lower number of seats wasn’t a reflection of the twin impact of demonetisation and GST, as the BJP had won comprehensively in Himachal Pradesh as well.
The vote increase, however, hides the Keshubhai Patel factor. The former BJP chief minister had broken away from the BJP in 2012, and his Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) had contested 167 seats, won two, and secured a vote share of 3.6 per cent in the previous Assembly election. The GPP had returned to the BJP fold in 2014, and Modi had visited Keshubhai in the run-up to the Assembly poll.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP had won all 26 seats in Gujarat, with a vote share of 60.1 per cent. Its seat tally now is also the lowest since 1995 (121 in 1995; 117 in 1998; 127 in 2002; 117 in 2007 and 115 in 2012).
Nearly half a dozen of its ministers lost but the BJP has done well in urban centres of Gujarat, where the anger against the Modi government had peaked after GST. The sweep in Surat, Vadodara and Ahmedabad suggested the Centre successfully reached out to limit the damage.
However, the party’s poor performance in rural areas, a fallout of farm distress, would most likely drive the Modi government’s final Budget, which Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is to present on February 1. The policy tilt could now be towards better allocation under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and higher minimum support prices for farmers. The FM has already announced several steps for the micro, small and medium enterprises sector.
On Monday afternoon, Hardik Patel announced renewed agitation for reservation in jobs for his community.
The Modi government and the BJP have much work on their hands in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, and also a slew of Assembly polls — Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya by March; Karnataka by May; and Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram by December 2018.
BJP’s Mahila Morcha workers celebrate the party’s success in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, in Bhopal on Monday. Photo: PTI