The high-decibel dholaks are out in force, the rumble of firecrackers rents the air, and BJP leaders in Gujarat and elsewhere are in a celebratory mood. With good reason. Narendra Modi has convincingly won a third round of Assembly elections in Gujarat under his leadership, defeating not just the Congress and the GPP, but even sections of the VHP and the RSS and – as BJP leaders would claim – the editorial biases of the liberal media that treated the 2002 riots as the beginning of history.
In a day and age when parties and governments make a hash of governance even after just one term in office and go to elections with the baggage of incumbency, Modi has, with his hat-trick of victories, effectively defeated the anti-incumbency sentiment as well. And, in large measure, he did it in Gujarat with the sheer force of his own personality and his record in office over the past 10 years. And the fact that in his campaign, he eschewed the politics of identity, and framed the contest in the context of an upwardly mobile neo-middle class has some important takeaways.
But if even so emphatic a victory seems less than stirring to impartial observers, it is only because of the excessively heightened expectations in the final phase of the campaign — built up by Modi’s army of loyal supporters — that the BJP was all set to score in excess of 130 (and perhaps even 150) seats. In fact, the case had been made that since this was not really a contest about Gujarat, Modi was in effect contesting against himself – and was looking to raise the bar with a thunderous, record-smashing victory to establish himself as the BJP’s unchallenged leader in the race for a prime ministerial candidate.
The record voter turnout in both phases of polling was also seen as a validation of the theory that this would lay the foundation for a Big Win for Modi, and project him to the national stage.
In the final analysis, the BJP under Modi huffed and puffed its way to win about as many seats as it did in 2007 — which, while it’s no mean feat, seems considerably less awesome than we’d been led to expect. More strikingly, the Congress marginally improved its vote-share — and claims on the basis of its performance that it has held its own against the Modi juggernaut.
Some of the heightened expectations that Modi’s followers gave rise to may of course have been political bluster of the sorts that every party and candidate gives in to, come election time, in order to signal supreme confidence. But if the art of expectation management is about promising less and delivering more, the Modi propaganda machine on overdrive has done exactly the opposite.
In itself, that is of little consequence in Gujarat, which is why BJP leaders have shifted the goalpost to redefine success to mean victory, plain and simple. Yet, in the backdrop of the framing of the contest, the end-result is a bit like going to a cricket match to watch Virendra Sehwag score a 60-ball 100, but instead watch him scratch out a slow-paced, workmanlike century with a stodgy style more reflective of Rahul Dravid. Such a century is no less utilitarian from the team’s point of view, but for a spectator who was expecting fireworks, it is an underwhelming experience.
None of this will inhibit Modi’s Delhi-ward move, of course, but it gives cause to reflect on how much else about the aura of Modi deserves to be tempered by realism. For instance, his supporters have tended to overplay Modi’s record of having ushered in development on a grand scale in Gujarat. There is of course plenty of anecdotal evidence of Gujarat’s progress, and particularly when compared to the record of other leaders in power, including at the Centre, Modi has built a brand around his developmental record that forms the basis for a powerful narrative.
But it is in his own interest, and the interests of the BJP, that this narrative not fall prey to hype of the sorts that we saw ahead of the elections in respect of Modi’s winnability. Far better to manage popular expectations at this stage than to set yourself for an emotional let-down later.