Gujarat is the first critical state since 2014 where BJP is seeking re-election, and a convincing win will seal Modi’s supreme leader status.
The next round of elections, starting with Gujarat, lend themselves to an interesting turning point in the closely-watched Narendra Modi-Amit Shah era of Indian politics. And the impact, incidentally, will be felt within the Bharatiya Janata Party, as much in the larger political space.
So, what’s the difference? First up, until now, all major state elections that BJP has won since Modi’s 2014 victory have been in places where it was not in power. As a result, every campaign narrative almost naturally flowed from Modi’s 2014 outsider-challenger pitch. Which is why Maharashtra and Haryana were seen as Modi’s victories as much as Bihar and Delhi were viewed as setbacks.
But overall, the BJP has gained in the last three years – the party wrested major states from the Congress, formed governments for the first time in key states of the North-East, and has topped it up with a handsome victory in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh.
Typically, the BJP’s campaign in most of these elections, including UP, were rolled out over three phases – the negative message, the promise, and the victory claim.
Just how did this work? The scene-setter was usually a strong negative campaign against the incumbent – corruption, lack of performance, and poor administration were the usual stumps of this segment of the campaign.
As election dates drew closer, the strategy would shift to something more positive by way of a high-pitched campaign around the BJP’s new agenda of governance, which mostly mirrored Modi’s 2014 campaign. And then came the final onslaught, usually in the middle of the election, creating a euphoria that the BJP was winning all and winning big, aimed largely at tipping fence-sitters who want their votes to be counted on the winning side.
This formula will now have to change. Barring Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, the BJP is in power in four of the six states – Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan – that go to the polls over the next year.
From challenging the incumbent to a performing incumbent is always a difficult shift. And in Modi’s case this will start from his home turf in Gujarat, where he has led the BJP to three consecutive victories. So, at one level, this is familiar territory for ‘Chief Minister’ Modi, but it’s a high stakes moment for Prime Minister Modi, because this campaign will also set the tone for his election pitch in 2019.
It’s an interesting campaign plan that has begun to unfold, one which has started with an effort to deny Congress the space to build a negative campaign. This was sought to be done by bringing the ‘Amethi model’ into the mix, so the party could contrast it with the famed Gujarat model.
Very quickly, a slew of inaugurations, many of which were projects incubated during Modi’s tenure as CM, were lined up to strengthen that pitch.
By all accounts, the ‘CM Modi’ narrative will in due course blend into a Gujarati pride campaign to bolster PM Modi. That’s what the BJP strategists are counting on to create what they call the “wave effect” to “sweep” the elections.
The Congress gets this, which is why it’s working hard on broadening its social base in rural Gujarat by tying up a coalition of caste-based leaders – much like in Bihar. It’s also hoping to make a dent in urban areas by harnessing the discontent arising from GST implementation and the overall slump in employment.
The Prime Minister did have the option of being a step removed from the election and let the state leadership take the lead in Gujarat. But true to his brand of maximalist politics, Modi has made this an election about him and his policies. In many ways, this will perhaps be the last election the BJP will fight on his track record as CM.
This brings us to the other, less spoken, side of the ‘incumbent’ story. A Gujarat victory will send a strong signal down the party’s rank and file, as well as to the RSS, that Modi is in a league much beyond other performing BJP CMs.
The pressure of re-election on the likes of Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who was once counted among the probables to challenge Modi, Raman Singh, and Vasundhara Raje, will increase. Not just that, the heat will also reach BJP’s key regional leaders such as B.S. Yeddyurappa to deliver in Karnataka.
The subtext, in case of a BJP victory in Gujarat, will be clear to the rest — that a negative result in their states could make the way for the party leadership to carry out a reassessment and even a rejig, if necessary.
The effect of capturing power as a challenger, an ascendant, is quite different from being able to retain it as an incumbent. While the former announces your presence, the latter establishes it. Modi doesn’t need that in Gujarat now, but a win in Gujarat will surely deepen his roots within the party and the Sangh Parivar, stamping out the potential of any internal resentment — the “anger within” as the gossip references goes — turning into a big challenge.
The only election of consequence, thereafter, for Modi will be the 2019 general elections. Yes, of course, any well-scripted playbook in Indian politics can go terribly wrong. But that caveat, in this case, is at the core of the incumbent’s gamble to be on the offensive, always.