Despite the two clear victories for the BJP, Monday’s results have opened up the political space which had seemed locked and sealed until the summer of 2019.
The BJP would be right to declare their mission Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat a total success and launch one full-throated celebration. Why is its response, therefore, muted? In his press conference today, instead of beaming his usual, post-conquest smile, BJP president Amit Shah had a frown, and a few complaints: with the Congress party, about how it “coarsened” the campaign in Gujarat.
Now, this is a first since the heady summer of 2014. Since then, any contest with the Congress (notably Haryana, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand) 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 for its “crown prince”.
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 their numbers falling in the first state election under Modi as prime minister.
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, Nehru, Indira, Morarji, Rajiv, Narasimha Rao or Vajpayee represented a state. Modi rose from Gujarat, a mid-sized state, about one-third of UP and just a little over a half of neighbouring Maharashtra’s size. 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 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, where it faces BJP in bipolar politics, 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 a perpetual joke.
And social algebra because the challenge for the BJP has always been to use religion (Hindutva) to reunite what caste divided. L.K. Advani used the Mandir issue in the nineties to achieve that briefly. Narendra 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 Hindus groups dumped their local caste loyalties and voted for BJP. Religion was again reuniting the Hindu vote, which caste had kept divided.
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 (with its history of KHAM, Kshatriya/Harijan/Adivasi/Muslim combination) it is threatening to return to the old normal. In other words, 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, until today, had seemed locked and sealed until the summer of 2019.
Or see it like this. After the 2014 sweep, the BJP had vowed to create a Congress-mukt (Congress-less) Bharat. It was well on its way there, knocking over state after state. With today’s result, it begins a fresh term in what can be aptly called 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.