The narrow defeat that the Congress party suffered in the just concluded Gujarat State Assembly elections clearly signals the re-entry of the Congress into the Indian political arena as the main challenge to the hegemony of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), its larger than life leader Narendra Modi, and its pernicious ideology, Hindutva writes P.K.Balachandran in South Asian Monitor.
Yes, there was an election in Himachal Pradesh in which the BJP trounced the Congress convincingly (44 seats to 21). But this election did not gain national importance. Firstly, because the state is small and secondly, the exit of the Congress from power was a foregone conclusion given the anti-incumbency factor. It was the anti-incumbency factor which threw the BJP government out of power in the previous election in 2012.
But Gujarat was a different kettle of fish. Though a provincial election, the Gujarat polls gained national importance and was seen as an indicator of the political scenario to emerge in India as a whole because it was held in the home turf and political pocket borough of Prime Minister Modi.
If Modi’s party could be defeated or mauled in Gujarat, it could be ousted from the Center too, ran the argument.
As it turned out, it was a close finish in contrast to the result of the previous election held in 2012. The BJP won 98 seats and the Congress 78, the National Congress 1 and others 5 in a House of 182. In the last elections, the BJP had bagged 115 seats and the Congress 61.
This should silence those who had blithely concluded that the Grand Old Party was on its death bed with no one to put life back into it except the “childish” (Pappu) Rahul Gandhi, who had failed to show the gumption and spunk required to lead a party from the depths of despair to heights of hope.
However, headlines in the media will tom tom the victory of the BJP in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh as an unmitigated triumph over the Congress and which will lead to the BJP’s sweeping the 2019 parliamentary elections and the State Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Karnataka.
But the BJP’s leaders and its machinery were aware of the uncomfortable truth that the going was getting to be tough. The party was feeling the burden cast by 22 years of incumbency, with a whole list of omissions and commissions to account for.
Modi addressed 31 public rallies travelling 6,600 kms. across the state. Seeing the ground slipping under his feet, he stooped to the level of accusing his rivals, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,of being Pakistani agents, to turn the electoral battle between “patriots” and “anti-nationals.”.
Of course, the BJP had enormous advantages. It had been in power since 1995 andhad, over the years, built an extensive network based on patronage which could be exploited in elections. And its Supremo, Narendra Modi, is a Gujarati, while Congress’s Rahul Gandhi is a non-Gujarati. The latter fact was used by Modi to press home the point that the people should back a “son of the soil” who will safeguard “Gujarati pride” rather than a rank outsider and a bird of passagelike Rahul Gandhi.
A key advantage the BJP had was that Gujarat had been the hotbed of “Hindutva” thanks to its history of communal conflicts and exploitation of communal and caste groupings to capture power. Contradictions with Muslims had been strong since the 1960s with the conflict reaching its crescendo in 2002 when about 2000 people, more Muslims than Hindus, were killed in Hindu-Muslim riots. And that took place under Modi’s watch.Therefore, Modi’s Hindutva had astrong resonance in Gujarat among the majority Hindus.
Sensing the latent anti-Muslim feeling in Gujarat, even Rahul Gandhi did not mention the term “Muslim” in his speeches this time. He preferred to speak in general terms about the BJP’s being a “divisive” party and the Congress being a “unifying” party.And in an uncharacteristic step, he worshiped at 27 Hindu templesand declared that he was a devotee of Lord Shiva.
However, despite the advantages, the BJP’s support base had eroded. Modi’s de-monetization of 86% of Indian currency in late 2016, and the introduction of the highly complicated and inconvenient all India General Sales Tax (GST) had alienated many.
Furthermore, the party, which had been campaigning on Hindu unity (which is at the core of the Hindutva concept), was unable to grasp the significance of the demand for recognition by Hindu caste groups like the Patidars and Dalits – both rural based. The Patidars had been agitating for reservation in jobs and education, and the Dalits had been complaining of persecution by the upper castes. Agitations by these caste groups were put down by force by the BJP regime in Gujarat, leading to the alienation of these groups.
The Congress capitalized on these contradictions by forming alliances with new and dynamic caste leaders like Hardik Patel (leader of the Patidars), AlposhThakor (leader of the Backward Classes) and Jignesh Mewani (leader of the Dalits).
As for the Muslims, the BJP had deliberately ignored them based on the belief that ignoring them would help it consolidate its majority Hindu vote base. But the BJP did not bargain for a split in the Hindu votes on the basis of caste. In the process, it lost a section of Hindus even as it had nil support among the Muslims. Muslims remained non-committal in the run up to the polls but could have voted Congress.
The overall picture is one of worry for the BJP despite its victory, and hope for the Congress despite its defeat. The BJP had lost some of its shine and large sections of the people are looking for an alternative. Rahul Gandhi’s Congress appears to be the alternative as on date, given the fact that it fought a spirited battle and gave the BJP and Modi a run for their money.
The question now is whether Modi will learn from the results of the Gujarat elections and change some of his social and economic policies or will see the victory as a full endorsement of his existing policies and keep going the way he has been going with greater vigor.
In all the likelihood, he would see the election result as an endorsement of his policies and style of functioning, and push forward his set agenda. That is the way “strong” or “extremist” leaders tend to behave. One might therefore see the Hindutva agenda being pushed in multiple ways in India to corner the Congress. On the foreign policy front, the nationalistic agenda will be pursued which means aggressive posturing vis-a-vis Pakistan and China so that fires of nationalism are kept burning at home.