The BJP would be right to declare its mission Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat a total success and launch one full-throated celebration. Then, why is its response muted? In his press conference on Monday, instead of beaming his usual, post-conquest smile, BJP President Amit Shah had a frown, and a few complaints: About the Congress and how it “coarsened” the campaign in Gujarat. This is a first since 2014, when any contest with the Congress has been a walkover for the BJP. And where the Congress did a little bit better but fell short of a majority, as in Goa and Manipur, the BJP simply walked across, gravy train in tow, and conjured up a government of its own. So far, the only post-poll comments on the Congress had been jeers, mocking pity, and ridicule. The Congress has been thrashed in Himachal and lost a sixth consecutive election in Gujarat. Yet it has given the almighty national ruling party a cause to complain. That is what makes this election different. Three things are crucial to this: Place, timing, and the social algebra, in that order. Place, because Gujarat is the political karmabhoomi of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Both, especially Modi, have a demi-god status there and the very fact that they got such a fright is change. It has shown the people of Gujarat and the rest of the country that the prime minister can be challenged within his state. Until this campaign peaked, nobody in his party would have imagined its numbers falling in the first state election under Modi as PM. Modi has a unique position in Indian politics. He is the first state leader to rise to the top at the Centre, and on his own steam. No prime minister of any durability until now represented a state. Modi rose from Gujarat, a mid-sized state.
When he goes back to his fellow Gujaratis and makes an emotional appeal, you do not expect him to be run this close.Timing is important because this coincides with the anointment of Rahul Gandhi as Congress president, so delayed that it had become a joke. It was also affirming his reputation for diffidence and reluctance to take responsibility. He did that this time, dedicated time, energy, and focus on the campaign in the most challenging state for his party, and returned with a pretty good score-card, if not a victory. In the BJP’s — and popular — view, Rahul has now morphed into a potential challenger from being a perpetual joke. And social algebra, because the challenge for the BJP has always been to use Hindutva to reunite what caste divided. L K Advani used the Mandir issue in the 1990s to achieve that briefly. Modi is doing it by redefining Indian nationalism in terms of the majority’s faith. This majoritarian nationalism enabled him to sweep Uttar Pradesh earlier this year as many Hindu groups dumped their local caste loyalties and voted for the BJP. The new caste linkages the Congress stitched up in Gujarat — with Patel, OBC and Dalit leaders — have challenged that construct in the state Modi-Shah would have considered their safest. They can complain about the Congress playing caste politics but the fact is that in Gujarat it is threatening to return to the old normal. Caste again threatens to divide what Hindutva has kept united for 25 years. That is why even two clear BJP victories make it such a watershed election. It has opened up the political space which had seemed locked and sealed until the summer of 2019. After the 2014 sweep, the BJP had vowed to create a Congress-mukt Bharat. It was well on its way there, knocking over state after state. With Monday’s result, it begins a fresh term in a Congress-yukt (including Congress) Gujarat. This is as radical a change in script as you could have in your fourth year in power, without actually losing a state election.
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