Three elected entities — two states and a key municipal corporation — went to the polls. The three outcomes have a bearing on the future of all three of our pan-national parties. The results are conclusive in each entity, yet intriguing in the big picture.
For the political analyst they yield no uncluttered analysis, no three central takeaways that you can link in a straight line. Indian politics is never as simple as that. Even the tempting line that the results have been bittersweet for each of the three contenders is lazy.
Let’s begin with the biggest bull in India’s political ring, the BJP. Its landslide in Gujarat has broken the all-time record set by Madhavsinh Solanki in 1985. That gives it much to celebrate. This victory was always anticipated even by its adversaries. The mood is, however, sobered by the defeats in Delhi (MCD) and Himachal Pradesh, the state where party president J.P. Nadda comes from.
The numbers in Gujarat are overwhelming. The final rounds of counting were still on as this was being written, but already the party’s vote percentage at 52-plus is marginally more than the 49 per cent in 2017. It’s a remarkable achievement for the party to have its vote percentage rising even in the fifth consecutive election under Narendra Modi. That last point, however, is a tough reality check.
In the same election season, in one state the BJP swept in Modi’s name — and only because of Modi’s name. In the other state, Himachal Pradesh, Modi’s name did not work. That is when Modi himself, sensing trouble, had put his reputation on the line. Don’t look at the candidate, he said famously — and audaciously. Just look at the symbol and vote in my name. If people in Gujarat vote only in Modi’s name, and in Himachal they don’t despite him beseeching them to do so, it underlines to the BJP the limitations of Modi’s magic.
Even in the MCD election, Modi’s name was liberally invoked, although he didn’t campaign. The party even put up hoardings with large portraits of Modi thanking him for the waiver of property tax defaulters’ fines and dues. That wasn’t enough to swing it either. This reminder, of the limitations of Modi’s vote-catching powers when he isn’t directly on the ticket or in his home state, will sober the BJP for 2023 when five major states, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, go to the polls. In the first four it’s a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress.
The current BJP government in Karnataka, stitched together with begged-borrowed-stolen MLAs, is probably the most unpopular in the country at this point. The chief minister is a lightweight if not a joke outright. Everybody is fighting everybody and the Congress is still intact. If the BJP loses the election this coming May, it will be a big setback. Modi is its only vote-catcher. Given how Himachal has yet again exposed the limitations of his charms in polls except in his home state, the BJP will be anxious.
The fact is, in none of the major state elections (besides Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh) has Modi been able to swing a majority since the winter of 2018. Karnataka (2018), Haryana, Jharkhand in 2019, West Bengal later. This frustrating limitation will impact the BJP’s politics and choices in 2023. Will it risk dumping Shivraj Singh Chouhan in MP, much as it might want to and as its super-vocal favourites in the state demand?
Can it dare to keep Vasundhara Raje sidelined in Rajasthan? We know it would love to but what are the risks? And in Chhattisgarh if not Raman Singh — whom it generally has a low opinion of — who else? When the leader’s name wins you everything, as Modi’s does in the Lok Sabha or Gujarat elections, you are forgiven all sins. Or, as we say in Hindi, “Saat khoon maaf (Seven murders are forgiven).” But when it doesn’t? How confident can it be going into Telangana, which it so covets? Himachal, and to some extent the MCD, have affirmed that reality.
We list the AAP ahead of the Congress in the chronology of this analysis simply because it has been the rising political force. It hasn’t fully lived up to that reputation. We know that its leader Arvind Kejriwal has announced proudly that AAP has become a national party, having crossed the qualification bar with its small score in Gujarat. But a mere four or five seats after such hype and spending must be a bummer.
The victory in the MCD election is a big plus, even if the tally was way below what exit pollsters forecast and the BJP is close enough to cause trouble. Especially in a municipal house not bound by limitations of the anti-defection law and from where the mayor is directly elected. Further, under the new law the Modi government passed, most of the MCD’s powers have been taken away.
The first big takeaway for AAP is that just as Modi isn’t such a vote-catcher outside Gujarat, Kejriwal isn’t outside Delhi. Like Uttar Pradesh for Modi, Kejriwal has a Punjab exception. Both those states have peculiar features.
AAP’s score of just 1 per cent of the vote in Himachal Pradesh, bordering Punjab, makes that point starkly. All its candidates have lost their deposits there. This election, therefore, is a dampener on Kejriwal’s national ambitions. At least in the immediate future, though we’ve known him to keep trying. It has also established his party as the Congress’s main rival. Its score of about 13 per cent of the vote in Gujarat, added to the Congress’s 28, adds up almost exactly to the 41 per cent the Congress had polled in 2017.
Has it also exposed the limitations of Kejriwal-AAP ideology-free politics? The decline in Muslim and Dalit votes in Delhi is only one indicator. But, can you build a pan-national politics based on free power, water, free this, free that? How far can you go with these when everybody has learnt to flaunt the same freebies. Even those who might dismiss these as “revdis” in apparent self-righteous contempt are content to offer the same goodies. This copyright has been broken. Overall, at this point, this is a setback to Kejriwal’s ambition of being Modi’s pre-eminent challenger in 2024. Caveat: There are still 16 months to go.
The result fully conforms to the definition of bittersweet for the Congress. It’s been routed so thoroughly in Gujarat that it may fall short of the 19 required to at least have a leader of the opposition. That all the votes it has lost have gone to a new challenger holds up the Delhi-Punjab mirror to it. And what it shows is rude as hell. Did the party err in not campaigning in Gujarat in an organised way at all? Did the Gandhis dumping the campaign hurt it?
Switch to Himachal now. The Gandhis were mostly not there. But the party had local elders who fought cohesively. The BJP, on the other hand, faced massive internal dissent and had to contend with 19 rebel candidates in a small state. At the end of the day, the Congress won itself the gift of a full-fledged state, however small.
Please note that this is the first electoral victory the party has scored since the winter of 2018. And while Priyanka Gandhi did hold some roadshows, this has been achieved mostly without the Gandhis. Is that the key lesson for the Congress party then, the electoral irrelevance of the Gandhis? The Gandhis can’t get you the votes; they even lose you some in a Modi-versus-Rahul binary. But they do contribute for sure, and critically, by keeping the party and its ideology together.