The triumph in the polls should not distract attention from the intriguing subtext that the ruling party is vulnerable.
As the sun sets on another Gujarat election, the outcome is an altogether familiar one: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) notches yet another victory—its sixth consecutive triumph in the state since 1995. The BJP bagged 99 of 182 seats on offer, a sixteen seat decline from its previous tally and a far cry from its stated mission to win more than 150 seats in the state. But, in the final analysis, a victory is a victory. When Gujaratis select their next assembly in the year 2022, the saffron party will have enjoyed a stunning 27 years at the reins—a tenure that rivals that of the Left Front in West Bengal.
The triumphant text, however, should not distract attention from the intriguing subtext: the Gujarat campaign suggests—and the BJP’s own behavior confirms—that the ruling party is vulnerable. As I wrote in a previous column, the BJP’s external dominance coexists uncomfortably with internal doubts about its performance. While party leaders are breathing a heavy sigh of relief that they crossed the majority mark in their western bastion, this election has taught us at least three things about the churn in Indian politics. These lessons portend a much more interesting final quarter of Modi’s first term in power than most of us had previously anticipated.
The first takeaway is that the BJP is struggling to rally voters on the basis of its economic record in office. In Gujarat, the BJP was forced to run a defensive campaign as the Congress Party pursued a relentless focus on acche din’s failure to materialise. I recall a 2015 conversation I had with a Delhi-based supporter of the BJP in the wake of the Modi government’s failed attempt to enact legislation rolling back elements of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s 2013 landmark land acquisition law. Think tanks and commentators will dissect the failure of the land bill, he argued, but the setback is an irrelevant blip.
In 2018, as the country prepares for the next general election, he projected that growth will be north of eight percent, inflation will be under three percent, private investment will be on the upswing, and deficits will be shrinking. On the back of economic renewal, the BJP supporter argued, the party—not the pundits—will have the last laugh. This optimistic projection was mugged by reality: growth has stumbled, inflation is rising, private investment is hurting, and fiscal pressures are reasserting themselves as the oil price windfall dissipates. The uneven economic data, and the government’s anemic job creation numbers, have taken some of the wind out its sails.
On the bright side for the BJP, its hold on urban Gujarat remains strong in spite of the double whammy of demonetization and the Goods and Services Tax (GST), both of which have been unsettled the trader community. In pursuing policies that adversely impact its longstanding votaries, Modi and party president Amit Shah have calculated that its core supporters have no credible “exit” option. As unhappy as entrepreneurs are with the BJP, where else will they go? Modi-Shah’s hypothesis seems to have been borne out by the Gujarat results. Rural areas, on the other hand, are a different story; there the Congress outperformed the BJP, particularly in Saurashtra. Just as disconcerting for the BJP is the fact that the youth (voters between the ages of 18 and 25) have allegedly swung towards the Congress, a sharp reversal of the 2014 Lok Sabha dynamics—when the BJP advantage was most pronounced among first-time voters.
The second takeaway from the Gujarat election is more a reminder, than a fresh lesson: the BJP sees majoritarian nationalism as an integral element of its operating framework. As tempting as it is to view the BJP through the simple binary of vikas versus Hindutva, the truth is that Modi’s project is to fuse the two into a seamless whole. The Gujarat campaign saw some of the ugliest communal dog-whistling in recent memory. From calling out the Congress’ “Mughlai” mentality to dubbing the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as “Aurangzeb Raj,” the prime minister directly waded into majoritarian waters. It turns out that these comments were simply a prelude to Modi’s wild suggestion that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other Congress leaders were in cahoots with Pakistan to sink the BJP’s chances in Gujarat—a conspiracy theory that can best be described as Trumpian.
Modi’s party colleagues, for their part, helped reinforce the message being delivered from the top. At a Bhavnagar rally, BJP president Amit Shah questioned the Congress’ patriotism by mocking its “soft” stance on Kashmir and its sympathy for Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar. Another party leader insisted that India must reduce the number of “dadhi-topi” people living in the country, stressing that “there should be no population of Dubai in Dabhoi”—the latter a municipality in Vadodara.
The resort to such polarizing rhetoric harkened back to the 2015 Bihar assembly campaign, when Modi asserted that the opposition parties were scheming to snatch away reservations for lower and backward castes and grant them instead to a “minority” community. Shah added fuel to the fire, quipping that they would be setting off crackers in Pakistan if the BJP were to be defeated in Bihar. If Gujarat is any guide, one should anticipate bruising state elections in 2018 in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan—where anti-incumbency sentiment against the BJP is likely to be greatest.
The third lesson is that the once-moribund Congress is showing surprising signs of life. For Congress supporters, the last three and a half years have brought little cheer. While the party had primed itself for defeat in 2014, what it received was decimation. The party’s two principal failings—the absence of leadership and vision—were laid bare for all to see. Little transpired in the months to follow to suggest that the Congress high command was seized by these existential issues. And then, just as the ink began to dry on obituaries penned for the party, it began to show signs of life. Rahul Gandhi was elevated to the top job, ending years of speculation about the half-in, half-out Congress scion. On the campaign trail and in public appearances, Rahul has appeared more consistent and self-assured. At times, he even appeared—gasp!—to be enjoying himself as he mocked the prime minister and lambasted the BJP’s record.
In addition, the Congress kept its ego in check to form convenient alliances in Gujarat. While in past years it would have tried to crush a young upstart like Hardik Patel, this time, it accommodated him. Whereas the Congress’ standard operating procedure would typically have rejected calls to cut deals with the likes of OBC leader Alpesh Thakor or Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani, the Gujarat campaign saw the formulation of opportunistic quid pro quos. The Congress organization may still be in intensive care, but at least it has a pulse.
Given the BJP’s marked advantage in terms of leadership, organisation, and material resources, no one should question that it has the political upper hand headed into the new year—irrespective of economic realities. The retention of Gujarat, not to mention the addition of Himachal Pradesh to the BJP’s kitty, will allow Modi and Shah to breath a heavy sigh of relief. But the relief could be short-lived if Gujarat is any indication of the fight that is in store in 2018.
Milan Vaishnav is senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You can follow him on Twitter @MilanV.