The BJP may have more to lose in Gujarat, but the Congress lacks a knockout punch | Opinion | analysis | Hindustan Times
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The BJP may have more to lose in Gujarat, but the Congress lacks a knockout punch | Opinion

For the BJP, a decisive win will boost the conviction that Modi is still very much in the driver’s seat for 2019. The Congress will be hoping that even if they lose, there will be enough cracks in the verdict to suggest that the gap is narrowing and they are back in the mix

analysis Updated: Dec 02, 2017 18:58 IST
Rahul Gandhi at a rally ahead of the Gujarat state assembly elections, at a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.
Rahul Gandhi at a rally ahead of the Gujarat state assembly elections, at a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. (REUTERS)

Gujarat, BJP’s bastion and Narendra Modi’s home turf, goes to the polls next week. There is more at stake here than just another term in control of the state. For the BJP, a decisive win will boost the conviction that Modi is still very much in the driver’s seat for 2019. The Congress will be hoping that even if they lose, there will be enough cracks in the verdict to suggest that the gap is narrowing and they are back in the mix. All opinion polls point to a BJP victory and that seems like a high probability outcome, yet it seems like the side with more to lose.

While caste equations are as salient in Gujarat as most Indian states, it is a society where business sentiment plays a pivotal role. This could weigh against the BJP as the going has not been good for Gujarati businessmen and traders over the last one year. The state’s textile industry is in very bad shape, with a prolonged demand slump that doesn’t seem to be getting better — neighbouring countries like Bangladesh are making more headway in the global marketplace. The ceramic hub of Morbi in Saurashtra had been hit hard by demonetisation and is barely limping back to life. While rates in many product categories were lowered recently, huge compliance difficulties remain — filing alignment with the informal segment still poses a huge challenge. October GST collections, well short of targets, underscores this issue. The festive season did little to lift sentiment; Diwali sales, across sectors, was one of the weakest in many years. The mood is grim in Gujarat’s business community. This may be a problem as the BJP’s traditional stronghold has been urban and semi-urban Gujarat. In rural areas, its gap with the Congress is very slender.

On the caste front too, it isn’t exactly smooth sailing. The emergence of new caste leaders from the Patels, Dalits and OBCs may chip away at the BJP’s vote share in quite a few constituencies. Some anti-incumbency after 22 years, significant headwinds for the business community and tricky caste arithmetic — all this may easily have added up to a treacherous electoral wicket for the ruling party. Yet the BJP will probably go on to win, because of the opposition’s inability to capitalise effectively on its weaknesses. Winning, as they say, is a habit; and right now, only one side knows how to do it.

The Congress senses an opportunity in Gujarat. In the BJP’s recent hyper reactive behaviour, it may also detect fear. Its gameplan, though, lacks a knockout punch. Teaming up with all caste leaders, who themselves cannot look each other in the eye, has a familiar, tried and failed – ‘all unite against Modi’ ring to it. It is unlikely to work. While Rahul Gandhi, in his recent forays, has cut a less ineffective figure, he hasn’t been able to present an alternative vision to the citizens of Gujarat. What exactly is the Congress party’s proposed solution to the economic and social disaffection that may have crept in? Can it put up a strong candidate who towers over the pedestrian BJP chief ministers that have ruled Gujarat since Narendra Modi moved to Delhi? Does it even possess the political finesse to harness the apparent angst among many communities in Gujarat to its advantage? If the answers to these are not in the affirmative, all that the opposition is doing is to hope for a negative verdict against the BJP. The old two-horse race of Indian politics – if you feel let down by one, you choose the other. Till the other lets you down. But this is a dangerous ploy for a party which is becoming less relevant with every passing election. Without a more proactive approach, the Congress may lose better, but the BJP will keep winning. Gujarat now and India in 2019.

Udayan Mukherjee in consulting editor, CNBC TV18

The views expressed are personal