Never in the 20 years since Narendra Modi came out seeking his first mandate in 2002 has there been an election in Gujarat that did not cast an overwhelming shadow on national politics. This one in 2022 isn’t any exception.
The outcome of this election will at the very least determine who gets the right to be the main challenger to Modi and the BJP in 2024. And in case a coalition of some sort is built against him, who is best positioned to lead it.
The results are still a week away. Miracles can happen in electoral politics and Yogendra Yadav, who’s wise in political science and psephology, had anticipated in 2007 that a chamatkar, as he put it, was possible in Gujarat. No such thing happened then, or in 2012 or 2017. All evidence suggests that one is unlikely in 2022.
In the past two decades, 2017 was the closest the Congress came to upsetting the BJP. But since then, its challenge has only declined as Modi’s stature has grown. What’s the story then? Why isn’t this a dull, foregone-conclusion election now?
The answer is, besides Gujarat, none of the major states going for elections in the next 12 months, Karnataka or Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh, will set the stage for the big one in the summer of 2024.
In the remaining elections, even if the Congress does brilliantly, it will be the playing out of an old script between two old rivals. In none of the four will the vote be directly in Modi’s name. He and his BJP could take such setbacks in their stride as they did in 2019. But once Modi is on the ticket, the script changes.
The Gujarat state election is different from any other. It is the only state where Modi is directly in contention. The election is so predominantly in his name that many would even struggle to remember the name of the incumbent chief minister. By the way, can you? Hand on your heart please, and no googling.
That’s why in Gujarat, even if Modi wins, the team that runs him closest has much to gain. It’s as if there’s a favourite for the gold medal and the fight is for the silver and bronze. Credit the Aam Aadmi Party for this change.
A good performance by Arvind Kejriwal will establish him as a genuine pan-national leader, the only one besides Modi and Rahul Gandhi, and AAP as a rising national force. Can he emerge as number two, leaving behind the Congress? Never mind if he can’t. Even if he comes out a respectable number three (no forecasts, it’s a rhetorical point), he’d be the rising new pan-national power and the Congress a declining one.
Because then, the BJP would have vanquished the Congress in the state for the fifth time running. Even if the latter finishes at its usual number two, unless it does brilliantly as in 2017, it will be a fading force. The momentum will then be with the upstart. That’s what worries the BJP.
There are two reasons we have seen so little focus on the Congress in this Gujarat election. One is the indifference of the Congress national leadership, especially the Gandhi family. The second, and more important, reason is how little the BJP is talking about its traditional rival compared to the new one. Even more than talking, see what it’s doing.
For several months leading up this campaign, all the BJP’s spokespersons, leaders, social media warriors and most importantly, the ‘agencies’, have been focussed only on one party, AAP. However self-righteously the BJP might deny it, there’s no fudging the fact that its primary target is AAP, and the focus is on not letting it grow.
So desperate has the party been to nip AAP in its Gujarat bud that journalists travelling to cover the campaign have come back with the sense that the BJP is almost wishing the Congress does well. Of course they want to win handsomely, but they also don’t want the Congress to do too badly. Between two defeated rivals, one on a larger decline is preferable to one with tailwinds. At the moment the BJP is struggling with this objective.
Over the past two decades, or since the beginning of the Modi epoch, the state’s politics has had two consistent factors. One, the BJP’s victories and domination. And second, a solid Congress vote bank in the mid-30s (in 2017 it was 41.4 per cent).
What it means is that even at its most dominant, the BJP has failed to breach this stockaded citadel. It has just confined the Congress in it, under permanent siege. Now if AAP breaks that deadlock, what was merely a challenge from the trenches and battlements thus far will become mobile warfare. That’s the reason the BJP has been so politically neurotic about Kejriwal.
Since Kejriwal is new and untested for the voter in Gujarat, he has much room to manoeuvre. He can keep silent on Bilkis Bano, the public flogging and all such matters, and yet if he’s seen as the rising force, the Congress’s committed Muslim voters will be attracted. At least some of them. Kejriwal then has the political space to talk about the uniform civil code (UCC), ultra-nationalism and pictures of the deities Lakshmi and Ganesh on currency notes.
We have argued often over the years that Kejriwal’s formula of confecting his politics in a fully ideology-free environment will be unsustainable in the long run. But the long run isn’t now. At this point, not being encumbered with ideology gives him the space to read from anybody’s book, especially the BJP’s.
That should particularly worry Modi and Shah — and it does. With the Congress, the ideological battle lines are clearly drawn. With AAP, it’s a bit of a mess. If you’ve been tracking Rahul Gandhi’s padyatra, he’s setting up his future politics, definitely the challenge for 2024 in fundamentally ideological terms. Was Savarkar a great nationalist or a cowardly collaborator? The premise behind ‘Bharat Jodo’ is that the BJP’s ideology has divided India. For Modi and Shah, it is easier to fight that. But how do you fight somebody who can use your own lines against you? And sprinkle ‘revdis’ like free power, water, and other handouts liberally along the way.
The BJP has been trying to create the binary of clean versus corrupt in its tussle with AAP. It has run into two problems. First, for all the FIRs, chargesheets, leaks, plants, hidden cameras and telling videos from jail and elsewhere, the ‘AAP is corrupt’ message doesn’t seem to be cutting it with its loyalists. Second, the argument that the BJP’s is the cleanest politics India has seen isn’t a convincing one. Whether it’s Morbi in Gujarat or the disaster created by the corrupt, incompetent BJP-run municipal corporations in Delhi.
And third, unlike the Congress, AAP seems to match the BJP fully for resources and campaigning power. This is so unlike the Congress. It hasn’t just been stingy but afraid to go for broke in any election, including notably Punjab.
Besides Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, AAP is seen as the only party able to stand up to the BJP now. That’s why if Kejriwal finishes second in Gujarat, it is a defeat for the BJP in the long run. Even if he finishes third, any vote share above 15 per cent will make the BJP anxious for 2024. Especially if AAP wrests the MCD, which is less unlikely than its winning Gujarat outright. That’s why this Gujarat election, like all others since 2002, is anything but dull.