BJP won convincingly in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh but is the tide turning, is Congress no longer a pariah?
The Gujarat election results have given glimpses of larger trends. For one thing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overwhelming domination of Indian politics has evidently given way.
The Gujarat election results have given glimpses of larger trends. For one thing, BJP's overwhelming domination of Indian politics has probably given way. The results from both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh indicate a relatively close race, the sort that would have been very unlikely until four months ago.
The flip side of this trend is an important question: Has the anger against the Congress’ corruption, which had built to fever pitch after the Commonwealth Games, abated?
The BJP has convincingly won both the Gujarat and Himachal Assemblies, but these results could just indicate that the tide has turned. The BJP under Modi is no more the unassailable party of nationalism and governance, which it had become in parts of the country where the contest was largely between the Congress and the BJP.
The BJP’s spinmasters smartly turned the results into a victory of 'reforms against anti-reforms' in an attempt to turn the spotlight away from the public irritation over the way the GST schemes have been implemented. However, that irritation has undoubtedly dented the BJP’s image, even if it did not lead to a defeat of the party.
Improved Congress showing
The gap between the Congress and the BJP in the 182-member Gujarat Assembly was only about 20, but two facts stand out. One, it was a close election. In scores of constituencies, the gap between the winner and the second candidate was relatively small.
Two, the Congress fared relatively well despite having no credible local face, a still-not-inspiring party president, and the effects of infighting and poor ticket distribution.
At about a third of the new House, the Congress won a decent number of seats even in Himachal, where a Congress defeat was generally expected, since the state traditionally swings between the Congress and the BJP and the Congress was the incumbent.
The Congress’ relatively strong showing does not indicate that it is popular or that its new leader, Rahul Gandhi, inspires confidence. The story is that the BJP lost ground rather than that the Congress gained ground.
Last lap attacks
Robust attacks of Congress leaders may have helped the BJP consolidate a little in the home stretch. The attacks centred on whether Rahul Gandhi is a Hindu, and the suggestion that Congress leaders, including former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, discussed the Gujarat elections with the Pakistan High Commissioner.
At an election rally during the last lap, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the dinner at the home of former Congress minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, at which several leaders, writers and others met a former Pakistan foreign minister, who was in India for a wedding. The dinner was projected as if the Congress leaders were strategising over the Gujarat elections at that dinner.
This sort of narrative represents a disturbing trend. Whereas India — and, even more so, the specific issue of Jammu and Kashmir — has often figured in Pakistani politics over the past several decades. But Pakistan has not been an issue in an Indian election, that too a state Assembly election.
On the basis of various reports from the ground, there can be no doubt that there was a strong anti-incumbency sentiment. Much of the anger was about the state government, but a part of the public anger was over Central issues such as GST implementation, demonetisation, economic slowdown, and general disappointment with governance.
The BJP’s spokespersons also targeted the Congress’ closeness to caste-based parties and groups in the Gujarat campaign. The point was repeatedly made as the results were being announced.
Party president Amit Shah even said that the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections would be held in a good atmosphere if such divisive politics from the Congress did not continue. That the BJP would win those elections was definite, he added.
This was an ironic perspective, since several analysts have raised questions about whether the ruling party will fall back on such Hindutva-based issues as the Ram temple at Ayodhya, the 'integration' of Kashmir, and triple talaq among Muslims for the 2019 general elections — particularly if the party’s record on 'development' continues to be suspect.
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