There is almost cent per cent certainty about the BJP winning the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections in December according to conventional wisdom.
Even then, the party has shown signs of nervousness, especially in Gujarat, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing 30-odd meetings in a fortnight and with as many as 40 Union ministers camping in the state to mobilize the voters.
Considering that the BJP has been in power in Gujarat for more than two decades, and virtually the entire state is regarded as Modi’s pocket borough, the intensity of his and his ministers’ campaigning can be seen as something of an overkill.
If the BJP has nevertheless thrown everything it has in the election, including persuading the Election Commission to delay the announcement of the date of the polls by a few weeks apparently to enable the state government to roll out a few sops for the electorate before the model code of conduct came into force, the reason perhaps is that for the first time in more than 20 years, it is facing a genuine challenge.
In the last three elections in 2002, 2007 and 2012, the BJP had banked on the threat posed to Gujarat’s “asmita” (pride) by its opponents, notably the Congress. The latter, too, blundered by calling Modi “maut ka saudagar” or the merchant of death because of his suspected complicity in the 2002 riots, which was projected by the BJP as an insult to Gujarat. The ruling party also made much of the Gujarat “model” of economic development.
There are two reasons, however, why 2017 is proving to be different from the three previous elections. One is that the Congress is far more careful in its utterances, concentrating this time on the charge that the Gujarat “model” is a skewed one because it is tilted heavily in favour of the corporate sector.
The other is the help it is receiving from three disgruntled groups – the Patidars or Patels who have been longstanding supporters of the BJP; the Dalits who have been up in arms against the BJP ever since the assault by cow vigilantes on a group of Dalits for skinning a cow, their traditional occupation; and the backward castes who have generally stayed away from the BJP because of its reputation as a party of the upper castes.
To make matters worse for the BJP, the three groups are led by trio of young, energetic and articulate leaders. Foremost among them is Hardik Patel, who has been demanding for several months the inclusion of the Patidars in the backward caste category so that they can avail of the employment opportunities enjoyed by the backward castes under the quota system.
The leader of the Dalits, Jignesh Mevani, and of the backward castes, Alpesh Thakor, have also proved to be effective anti-BJP campaigners. Although only Thakor has joined the Congress, the proximity of the two others to the 132-year-old party is no secret.
The Congress has also gained from the remarkable change in Rahul Gandhi’s persona in recent times. From being a reluctant politician who often went abroad or disappeared altogether by vacationing in an unknown place, the Congress vice-president has emerged as a sober politician who is making an impact on the social media scene with his cutting one-liners.
These are some of the reasons why the BJP is pulling out all the stops to ensure its success in Gujarat. Its efforts include particularly sharp attacks by Modi on the Congress by saying that the party comprises “termites” and criticizing the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty for its dislike of the state with Indira Gandhi covering her nose with a handkerchief to keep out the stench.
It is not often that the prime minister is so acerbic, especially when the state is supposed to be his balliwick. If he is nevertheless very much on the offensive, the explanation lies in the possibility of a drop in the BJP’s number of seats even if it wins.
According to the bookies, the BJP is expected to win 107-110 seats (it won 115 in 2012) out of 182, which is obviously a convincing victory, but it falls well short of the party’s claim of a 150-plus tally. The BJP’s problem is that it has hyped up its own expectations to such an extent that any shortfall in seats compared to the projected figure will be seen as a setback.
Even then, its expected successes in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh mean that it can approach next year’s far more crucial elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh with greater confidence. These contests are of considerable significance for the BJP because, unlike Gujarat, the party is expected to suffer the consequences of an anti-incumbency factor in the three states.
One reason why this factor is not working in Gujarat is because the Congress does not have a credible chief ministerial face. This isn’t true in Rajasthan, where Sachin Pilot has emerged as an important leader, and in Madhya Pradesh, where Jyotiraditya Scindia holds a similar position.
These young leaders are expected to boost the Congress’s prospects in the two states where there is nothing much to write home about the BJP’s governance. However, so far as Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are concerned, the BJP is home and dry.