“Gujarat will show the way to India, that elections can be fought and won on the development plank”, Narendra Modi has been saying on the election stump. Often, this statement would come after Modi would have made a series of sarcastic references to the top leadership of the Congress - Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi.
His critics and Congress leaders had a different story to tell. They talked about how they had worked out a thoughtful strategy, a smart, but low-key electoral campaign where Sonia and Rahul Gandhi would not name Modi even once, and how this had put Modi at a disadvantage. Unlike the polarised voting in 2002 and 2007, in 2012 Modi was searching for an issue, they said.
But the reality is that Modi vigorously marketed his brand of development and governance to his public under an electoral catch phrase, “Ekmat Gujarat”.
The results proved Modi right and his rivals wrong. The thrust of Modi’s campaign was on highlighting his positives in development and a subtle pandering to Gujarati sub-nationalism. The Congress stuck to a conventional model of campaigning, unleashing negativity. Modi rebutted their charges quickly - and contradicted the criticisms of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi.
A remarkable point with Modi's campaign was the lack of freebies for the electorate - something that the Congress has been doling out in profusion in every election.
Modi thus not only outlined a strategy without giveaways, and, in the process transformed a state election into a national election. Whether or not the Gujarat election will change the political discourse away from economic populism to development remains to be seen, but his 115-seat performance - just two short of his 2007 achievement - and his electoral hat-trick (the fifth time the BJP has won in five tries) show that there is an alternative path to electoral victories.
But the Congress, it seems, is not inclined to take any lessons from the defeat. While Finance Minister P Chidambaram talked of Modi being “contained” and credited his victory only to the “stranglehold” that the Gujarat government had over the bureaucracy, he seemed to see a positive in the fact that the “Congress had made an impression” in these elections. Chidambam’s colleague in South Block, Minister of External Affairs Salman Khursheed, was not willing to concede victory for Modi. He talked of “strong indications that should worry Modi”.
Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley mocked Chidamabaram’s take. "Faced with adversity in Gujarat, he turned defeat into victory. Obviously, Chidambaram suffered from an optical illusion”.
In these elections and his immediate actions after the results, Modi began changing the script by seeking the blessings of his bitter rival Keshubhai Patel. Observers see this as an indication of an attempt to change his image.
While it is not clear if the Gujarat model can be taken national, his strategists will try and project him as a strong and decisive leader who is focused on governance, something that could be contrasted with Manmohan Singh’s perceived failure during UPA-2. Modi supporters say that he is too sharp to presume that what worked in Gujarat will work elsewhere, and he will trim his sails according to the winds.
While the BJP is basking in the Gujarat victory, conveniently choosing to ignore the defeat in Himachal Pradesh, it is playing safe on the question of whether this will propel Modi to the party's top. There is still a lot of pulling and pushing in the party, and the BJP's godfathers in Nagpur will be taking a close look at that before speaking their minds. A key development to watch is what the RSS does about re-nominating Nitin Gadkari, a favourite of the Sarsanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat. If Modi is to move centre-stage, he will want to have a say in who the BJP president is, but party insiders don't think he will make his moves so soon. In any case, Gadkari cannot be sure of another three-year tenure.
BJP sources told Firstpost that the real answer to the question as to when Modi will turn to Delhi is that only Modi knows. It is highly unlikely that he will abandon his Chief Ministership and place a puppet on the seat in the near future, since he has many things to do even in Gujarat. Moreover, the national elections are 16 months away and he has some time to decide when would be the right time to make a move. Modi has not sought the post of BJP President, but the RSS is agreeable to his having the post when he wants it, sources say.
However, the real pressure for Modi's move to Delhi will come from the party's rank-and-file, and Modi's in-house baiters will not be able to ignore that. The media hype building around Modi has already made things difficult for Modi's rivals in the Sangh Parivar.