Gujarat Assembly Election: Congress blunted BJP's Hindutva edge by keeping a distance from Muslims
Despite the fact that the BJP won, the long-drawn battle in Gujarat could well have changed the Modi-centric template of electoral politics in recent years.
That the formidable Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo would look fallible on home turf and Rahul Gandhi would discover his political mojo on almost hostile political terrain conveys several important messages for Indian politics.
Despite the fact that the BJP managed to pull through (attaining majority by a margin of seven seats), the long-drawn intense battle in Gujarat could well have changed the Modi-centric template of electoral politics in recent years, which everyone thought was impossible to escape from till at least a credible opposition emerged.
The prime minister, BJP's answer to fending off its opponents in electoral battles all over the country, has thus far carried the party's campaign as a one-man army. But the Gujarat results betray the party — and Modi's — vulnerability when a more equal battle is afoot.
The Modi formula
BJP's massive victory under Modi’s leadership in 2014, and in subsequent state elections, helped expand the party's footprint and penetrate into areas long considered to be outside the party's electoral domain – read Assam.
This year's Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections serve as the perfect use case for the Modi formula. Moditva, a blend of rhetoric centred around Hindutva and development perfected by Modi, garnered mass appeal for him in the state and was successful in shifting the electoral winds towards the party sails. All BJP had to do was to factor in Moditva into its well-established and practiced strategy centred around Hindutva.
Given all this, Gujarat should have been an easy and big win.
But Hindutva politics has its limits. In Gujarat, the BJP may have stretched the polarisation game to the point from where the electoral returns could only be low, even negative. Hindutva politics is fundamentally adversarial and can survive only in a versus scenario. If minorities and their appeasement are taken out of the equation, then its appeal wanes. When all political parties evade being identified with these communities it stops delivering electoral dividends. In Gujarat, that was precisely the case; Congress blunted Hindutva's edge by maintaining a distance from them and was able to negate Modi's and thereby BJP's success formula.
Thus, the Congress was able to prove to the rest of India that the Modi formula may not be as infallible as imagined.
A look back at the 2012 Gujarat polls reveals that there existed a parity in the electoral approach between the BJP and Modi.
But in the lead up to the 2014 elections and beyond, Moditva started to weigh in heavily as an electoral strategy, 'Modi'fying the established order.
Thus, BJP's overreliance on Modi for elections and his larger-than-life persona has invariably created a scenario in which 'Brand Modi' has all but trampled the party as an entity outside of him. This has eviscerated the second-rung party leadership, making a 'Modi-centred' approach imperative for any electoral campaign.
The results in Gujarat show the perils of this approach. Using the prime minister as an electoral spearhead is fetching diminishing returns, and the lack of strong local leaders capable of mobilising the masses only accentuates this problem.
As argued by Firstpost in an earlier article, the Gujarati voters were able to make a distinction between Modi and BJP. "The state unit leadership was cocksure about winning the state hands down. In any case, the only challenge was from a weak Congress leadership in the form of the incoming party president Rahul." That assurance, the piece adds, "was bordering to the point of hubris and was quite misplaced".
The lack of viable local leadership with an ear to the ground almost cost the BJP. Vijay Rupani, and Anandiben Patel before him, did not possess the gravitas and the stature needed to mobilise the party workforce or sway the electorate. Add to it the fact that the Congress' counter-narrative to the BJP was formed by its association with youth leaders like Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani. A worried BJP was reduced to launching a fire-fighting operation to try and discredit the three young leaders. The result, BJP's worst performance in 22 years.
While the party may argue that the Congress was trying to 'outsource' the election campaign to them, the fact is that it won't be long before the electorate realises that 'loaning out' the prime minister as an electoral campaigner is also a form of outsourcing.
With Assembly elections due in eight states next year and the crucial 2019 General polls to follow, the BJP's strategy needs to make way for a more structural, nuanced approach.
In not declaring a chief ministerial candidate before the results — as in the case of Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh etc — the BJP put all its eggs in the Modi basket, gambling on his grand image to pull through. But the recent results highlight the need to cultivate local leaders and announcing candidates beforehand to consolidate vote banks and restoring parity to the Modi-BJP equation.
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