Gujarat Election Results: Congress takes sheen off BJP win, but outcome sends warning signs to both parties

When Congress president Rahul Gandhi boasted that the Gujarat elections would throw up a zabardast result, he didn’t, of course, have in mind the outcome delivered on Monday.

Yet, in a way different from what Rahul had envisioned and perhaps even prayed for in the numerous temples he visited during the campaign, the result was indeed a zabardast one. As counting continued and leads flashed on TV screens, it looked at one point like a neck-and-neck battle. Then it suddenly seemed like Rahul was running between wickets so quickly to catch up with the BJP’s score that he was run out, and some of his supporters began to blame the umpire — the EVMs. Soon the dust settled: The BJP’s tally came to be 99 in an Assembly of 182 seats, and that of the Congress, 80.

Besides being an edge-of-the-seat thriller, the result was a zabardast one for another reason: It holds lessons for both the BJP and the Congress.

The bottom line for the BJP is this: It can’t brush under the saffron carpet the fact that its tally is not only woefully short of the 150 seats it has been boasting it would win, but is even less than the 115 it won in 2012. The Congress, on the other hand, has improved its tally from 61.

This scorecard might tempt some analysts to describe to hastily describe the Gujarat election as a war that nobody has won. That would be wrong, although credit must go to the Congress for having given the BJP a tough fight. Not surprisingly, supporters of the dynasty lost little time in singing paeans to Rahul's exemplary leadership and concluding that the Nehru-Gandhi clan is the last hope for all Indians to mitigate their miseries, with Left-leaning intellectuals supplied the accompanying orchestra.

But what they forget is that a party's job is to win an election and not just put up a tough fight and go home all smiles. They should also remember that, at the end of the day, the BJP not only retained Gujarat but also annexed Himachal Pradesh from the Congress — which is now left with only Karnataka, Punjab, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Puducherry to rule.

At the same time, the result can mean that the BJP is not as invincible as it believes. If the Congress, with all its sloppy strategy and with help from a self-styled 24-year-old Patidar caste champion, can rattle the BJP in the backyard of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, the party must worry about what could happen in future elections elsewhere. The Gujarat result tells the rest of India that the Modi magic may not be as failsafe as imagined, and his famed juggernaut can be slowed by speedbreakers.

BJP supporters celebrate their party's victory in the state. PTI

BJP supporters celebrate their party's victory in the state. PTI

You can, of course, expect the BJP leaders to put on brave faces and blame anti-incumbency and the Congress' casteisation of the election by making impossible promises of reservations to Patidars. They are not far wrong, but the question is what the BJP has done about it and what it will do about it in future.

A wake-up call for the BJP

If the BJP has escaped with only limited damage from anti-incumbency, it's partly because the state's much-trumpeted development model has apparently done some good in Gujarat, despite what habitual Modi-baiters claim.

Despite this victory, the BJP must note that grievances over demonetisation, GST, jobless growth and agrarian misery (that were discussed in the Gujarat election) exist in the rest of India as well. In Gujarat, Modi must now be wary of what anti-incumbency can do in 2019 when he will seek his second term as the prime minister, especially if Rahul mends his ways, repackages himself yet another time and stitches up a Grand Alliance. And within the next five months or so, the assemblies of Karnataka, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura will go to the polls.

As 2019 nears, the BJP must harp less on Hindutva, focus on good governance and bring some noticeable improvement to the common man's life. Considering that the last six months may go away in alliance-making, candidate-selection and the model code, the party has just about 10 months to accomplish that.

What the result tells the Congress

Since 2014, the electoral strategy of the Congress has largely consisted of three things:
1. Attacking Modi on communalism,
2. accusing him of doing nothing on the economic front and
3. trying to appease sundry castes.

This scheme of the Congress has flopped in state after state, and Gujarat is the latest one.

What’s important is that, in Gujarat this time, the BJP didn’t play the religion card as much as it is accused of doing.

Those who attribute the party’s victory only to communal polarisation and Modi’s ridiculous talk about the Congress confabulations with Pakistanis during the Gujarat campaign, and nothing else, are being either downright naive or lying. Yet the Congress harped on it in Gujarat, as it did elsewhere in the past. By castigating Modi on communalism the way it does, the Congress almost always ends up painting itself as anti-Hindu and losing votes.

The Congress must also introspect on its silly posturing of soft Hindutva in Gujarat. It hasn’t helped. If the party indeed is serious about not being dubbed anti-Hindu, what it must do is to come clean on what it means by secularism. It must tell the country that secularism means equality of religions and separating religion from the State without appeasing any section — Hindus in the case of Hindutva hooligans and minorities in the case of Congress minions.

The Congress must equally worry about what it says about the nation’s economy. It’s fairly certain by now that economics mattered in Gujarat election much more than politics, and it helped the BJP retain the state, though multiple other issues including perhaps the Pakistan bogey played their roles. But Rahul’s campaign on development hasn’t helped his party significantly enough. His monologues on jobs and economy offer no alternative solutions and only led to a collective yawn from the Gujaratis. In fact, if the Congress won Gujarat, it would have been able to do little to mitigate people’s distress on issues he raised.

And once again, the Congress strategy of casteisation was of little help. Its deals with three caste leaders — Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakor — may have helped it get some seats but not enough to win the election. The lesson for the Congress is that it must stop overestimating the role caste plays in elections in the Modi era. The party hasn’t realised that trying to appease different castes with conflicting interests, unless done with tact, is inherently risky. For instance, by trying to placate Patidars, the Congress may have helped non-Patidar Hindus rally behind the BJP to some extent.

The Gujarat election once again proves that the Congress has no clue — not even a clue to a clue — as to how elections are fought on the ground. For the party, booth-level election management, from the days of Indira Gandhi, usually meant no more than hiring thugs to ferry some voters to polling stations and intimidating others.

In Gujarat this time, the party assigned a former IPS officer to do some booth-level number crunching with the aid of hired analysts.

This is something like a soap-making company dividing its territory into different zones, studying where rival brands are doing better and then letting armchair experts shape strategies. It’s a far cry from the clinical and devoted fashion in which BJP workers go about their job of meeting voters and persuading them to vote for the party.

There is one last thing that Rahul must learn: Although Twitter is a nice thing, it's not a replacement for partymen reaching out to voters in flesh and blood.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2017 11:00:43 IST

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